Jensen was mostly-finished transferring the information the team needed onto a flash drive when things went pear-shaped, but for once, it wasn’t on his end, and it wasn’t his fault. Everything was quiet and still in the office building, not even a passing guard to be suspicious of the light and noise coming from the computer room, when Jensen made the mistake of thinking maybe this one really will be easy.
He knew better than to jinx it, he really did. Pooch would have smacked him on the back of the head if he had been there—and also if Jensen had actually said it out loud, which for once he hadn’t. His thoughts were too tied up in what he was seeing on the computer screen for words to escape, which meant that except for the sound of the keyboard it was perfectly silent when it happened.
It was a muffled flurry of sound over the earpiece, a whump and a rush of air like a held breath released all at once, a brief buzz of static, and then silence again.
Jensen paused, hands frozen an inch above the keyboard, cleared his throat, and broke what, for him, felt like a record period of radio silence. “Hey, Cougs, everything okay?” he said, because Cougar usually only made two types of nonverbal sounds over the comms, either Jensen, your babbling is amusing and you should continue, or Jensen, your babbling is irritating and if you don’t stop I’ll shoot you, and this was emphatically not either one of them. “Cougar? What was that noise?”
More silence. There wasn’t even the reassuring white noise of breathing that the throat mics always picked up, which meant one of three things. One, the mic had been turned off. Two, it had been taken off. Neither of which Cougar would have done in the middle of an op, which meant it had to be against his will.
Something was Not Right—capital letters and all—and Jensen felt his skin crawl as he very carefully did not think about the third option, which was that the mic wasn’t picking up breathing sounds because Cougar wasn’t breathing.
“Come on, buddy, I know you’re quiet, but this is taking it to a whole new level.”
Back at base, Clay seemed to pick up on the fact that something had gone wrong, because there was a click and his voice was suddenly in Jensen’s ear. “Cougar, Jensen, report. What’s going on?”
“Cougs isn’t answering, bossman,” Jensen said. Clay cursed just as the computer dinged up at him. The intel had copied over. He ignored Clay for a second as the man snapped at Cougar over the comms, trying to get a response, because as much as Jensen wanted to get the fuck out and check on Cougar himself, he had to finish what he had started. He rattled off a few more commands on the keyboard, and then his presence on the computer system and in the building itself was entirely erased. Done and done.
“He’s not responding, there’s no signal from the tracker in his earpiece, and we have no idea if anything is coming your way. You got what you need, Jensen?” Clay barked, when it was abundantly clear Cougar wasn’t answering.
“Got it,” he said, making sure to remove his external hard drive without ejecting it properly. It was a matter of principle.
“Then get the hell out. Pooch will meet you outside in five. Get the drive clear, then figure out what the hell happened to Cougar, got it?”
“Loud and clear, Colonel.” The clock on the wall flicked over to one in the morning, reminding him that he only had minutes before the security systems turned back on. He got going.
The stairwells seemed longer than they had before, and Jensen was on ultra-high alert as he worked his way back down toward the ground floor and the exit, ears straining to hear any hint of movement or any threat. There was nothing, and Jensen found himself slipping out the side door into the parking lot less than a minute before he got the alert that the security system had turned back on.
Pooch came screeching around the corner in a cliché black SUV with tinted windows, and Jensen jogged out to meet it with hands that were starting to shake. Mission adrenaline was fading, that clear-headed sense of immediacy and necessity that allowed him to focus on the mission before anything else dissipating in the face of what was rapidly becoming full-blown panic.
Cougar, Jensen thought, shit, and for once his brain failed to provide him with any more words, just a pulse of fear and a sense of foreboding. Cougar always answered his comms, when it mattered, and Cougar was supposed to be the safe one on this op, anyway, high and away from the guards in his sniper’s nest. That was the only reason he had insisted that he didn’t need a spotter, that Pooch should go with Clay and Aisha to take out the head of Max’s weapons pipeline on the other side of the city—two simultaneous ops that each worked as a smokescreen for the other. No one ever expected that a small unit like the Losers could split up and still operate effectively.
Jensen hadn’t argued, because Cougar could handle himself and wasn’t stupid enough to say he didn’t need help if he did, and now Cougar wasn’t answering his comms.
All this flashed through his head in the time it took to fling the SUV’s door open and scramble into the backseat, slamming the door shut behind him. “You got a burner laptop for me in here somewhere?” Jensen said as Pooch gunned it, shooting away from the empty office building in a squeal of the tires. Some people kept burner phones, and awesome people kept burner everything else, because you never knew when you’d need a secure internet connection that wouldn’t trace right back to your own front door.
“How about hi, Pooch, hello, Pooch, thanks for picking my pale white ass up so I didn’t have to walk back to base, Pooch?” Pooch grumbled, but there wasn’t much heat to it. “It’s under the seat, and you’d better damn well appreciate that I remembered to bring it, since you forgot.”
“Hi, Pooch, hello, Pooch, thanks and thanks again, the sooner I get this done the sooner Clay will stop bitching and let me go find Cougs,” Jensen rattled off, already booting up the laptop and ramming the drive into an open port, establishing a secure connection back to base using the business-grade WiFi he had—commandeered—from one of the office buildings on the street.
There was a sputter from Clay over the comms—Jensen had forgotten that those were still on, whoops, Clay was going to kill him—and he yelped out a quick, “Sorry, can’t hear you, going through a tunnel,” and turned his earpiece and mic off before Clay had time to do more than bite out Jensen’s name angrily.
“A tunnel, man?” Pooch said, incredulous. “You are so dead,” but he reached up and turned his comms off, too, so Jensen guessed he felt the same way. Without asking, Jensen knew Pooch was starting up a winding path around a few city blocks, losing any potential pursuit and giving Jensen the time he needed to send off the intel without getting too far from Cougar’s last known location. It was only a few mostly silent minutes later—Jensen’s running chain-of-thought commentary didn’t really count—that Jensen was wiping the laptop and the hard drive both and breaking them down into their component pieces, which he would toss off a highway overpass when he had the time.
“Intel’s clear,” he called up to Pooch.
Pooch nodded. “Hold on,” he said, and pulled a very illegal U-turn in the middle of the street to the tune of the half-hearted honking of big city early-morning traffic. “Turn your comms back on, man,” Pooch said like an afterthought, already reaching up to do it himself, and Jensen sighed before following suit. There was a buzz of feedback, harsh, that resolved into Clay’s shouting voice, with a softer, higher voice in the background, not on the mics—Aisha, either trying to calm Clay down or egg him on. Honestly, it could go either way.
“—going off half-cocked when you should be—”
Jensen winced and interrupted for the sake of his eardrums. “Colonel,” he said.
“Oh, excellent. You boys have finally deigned to answer. As if one missing teammate wasn’t—why don’t we all just turn off our comms and stop responding? Then we won’t know where anyone is, and we can all play paranoid hide-and-seek across the city! Doesn’t that sound like fun?”
Actually, it almost did, because Jensen loved it when he could rile Clay up enough to grow a sense of humor, even if it was a bitterly sarcastic one and always at his expense. Now was probably not the time to push it, though, so Jensen echoed Pooch’s sincere-ish apology and started checking that all his weapons were in place and ready to go.
“Alright,” Clay said, somewhat mollified. “Fuck. Go take a look. Don’t get separated, don’t get caught. I can track one missing man, but I can’t track three, so find what you can and get your asses out. Jensen, am I clear?”
“As a windowpane, sir,” Jensen said.
“We’ll get it done, Clay,” Pooch added. The SUV rumbled to a stop outside the empty office high-rise positioned catty-corner to the complex Jensen had just left, the one with an excellent view straight into the complex’s server rooms—at least, if one had a scope and a sniper rifle. Jensen had last seen Cougar there no more than an hour before.
Fuck, an hour. Plenty of things could happen in an hour.
Clay was still talking. “And if anyone turns off their comms, their ass is grass.”
Jensen fidgeted, impatient. “And you’re the lawnmower, yes. Can we go now?”
They went. The elevator—a slow and clunky thing—played soothing classical music as it moved, and Jensen found himself humming along almost involuntarily. It was a nervous tic that kept him from bursting into a ball of panic and tears, so he ignored the sidelong looks Pooch was shooting his way and kept right on humming. “What?” he said when the elevator finally dinged to a stop on the tenth floor. “It’s Schubert, Pooch. It’s classical!”
“You have a problem,” Pooch said, but when the doors slid open he let Jensen go out first, because Pooch was a good friend who secretly loved that everyone on the team was weirder than he was.
The building was still, their rubber-soled boots nearly silent across carpeted floors. It was a straight shot from the bank of elevators to the windows, but Jensen and Pooch cleared the floor first anyway, moving from office to office and cubicle to cubicle before they were certain they were alone.
So—no bad guys hanging around, waiting to make a move, but then again—and infinitely more important—no Cougar, either.
“No Cougs, no rifle, no blood or signs of a struggle,” Jensen said for Clay’s benefit. He could hear Clay repeat it quietly for Aisha in the background.
“Damn,” Pooch said, showing Jensen what he had found kicked under a desk near the windows—Cougar’s microphone, or what was left of it, a sad and mangled heap of crushed electronics. As if that weren’t bad enough, Jensen glanced down and felt his breath catch.
“His hat’s in the trash,” he reported, and fished it out with hands that felt numb. The last little bit of hope died—Cougar would never walk away without it.
“Damn,” Pooch said again, hard and fast.
* * *
Cougar had refused to let Jensen plant a tracking device on his person, a fact which had been mildly irritating at the time but was infuriating now, when even a simple tracker in Cougar’s boots would have given them a starting point, a direction to look towards.
Paranoia was all well and good, but for once it was just making Jensen’s life harder.
The GPS tracker in his rifle case had to be activated manually in advance—more paranoia—and the earpiece had been found, smashed beyond repair, in the same trash can as Cougar’s hat, so there was no signal there. All Jensen had to go on were surveillance cameras from the outside of the building and a few sporadic traffic cams—enough to get him four blurry shapes, white males in dark clothing carrying a fifth body—Cougar, so limp and so perfectly still that for a heart-stopping second Jensen thought he was dead.
But no one would tie up a dead man, and his hands and feet were bound. They also had a bulky black case—Cougar’s rifle. They got into a nondescript white van, with a license plate so pixelated that no matter how much Jensen coaxed and pleaded it remained indecipherable.
But that was fine, that wouldn’t be enough to stump him. It took an hour of hopping from surveillance camera to surveillance camera through the industrial district before he got a good angle on a camera with high enough definition that the license plate was legible, and then an hour more to set an algorithm running and track the van through the city proper. He lost it a few times in traffic, but cities the size of Los Angeles had cameras literally everywhere, and it was never hard to find it again.
All in all, it was less than four hours after Cougar had stopped answering his comms that Jensen had an address and a surveillance feed for the building, a three-story modified office complex on the far side of the city.
“It’s good to be a geek,” Jensen said, cracking a grin that felt—and probably looked—a little manic.
“You’ve got something?” Clay said, coming around behind him. Across the room, Pooch looked up from where he had been playing a modified version of Solitaire; Jensen maintained that Solitaire was and always would be a game for the old and lonely, but Pooch insisted on playing whenever he needed something to do with his hands.
Aisha did not look up from whatever she was doing, but Jensen knew she was at least vaguely fond of Cougar, who did his job well and did it without bitching. For all he knew, Aisha had been planning to go back to the office building and track Cougar herself if Jensen hadn’t found something. Jensen was pretty sure she could smell a blood trail, like a shark.
“I have more than something, boss,” Jensen said, and with a few clicks, pulled up the surveillance feeds on the projector he had rigged up against the concrete wall. “They took him in a van to this building, which happens to have internal and external surveillance that I was able to hack—uh, liberate—and stream live. I can’t access archived footage, unfortunately, not without on-site access, but somewhere in this mess—” He paused to gesture to the mass of camera feeds. “—is Cougar. Luckily, it’s barely five o’clock, so there aren’t many people in the building to begin with, and it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out which one is him.”
“You’re certain that feed is live?” Aisha cut in.
“One hundred and ten percent,” he said, and then thought about it. “Wait, why?”
She pointed at the bottom right corner of the projected screen, where the feed showing the outside of the office building was running. “Because Cougar just walked out the front door.”
* * *
There was a payphone out on the street directly in front of the office building, in full view of at least three security cameras and one traffic cam. This mattered, because Cougar was standing in it—hatless, shirtless, and, apparently, shoeless, wearing ill-fitting pants that were definitely not his own, but with his rifle case nevertheless slung over his shoulders—fishing coins out of his pockets to feed to the machine. He looked a little chilly, but otherwise fine.
Jensen glanced around the room, just to make sure everyone else was as confused by this development as he felt. They seemed to be, which was reassuring, because Jensen couldn’t imagine living in a world where it wasn’t weird to be watching a mostly-undressed teammate pulling an absurd number of nickels out of someone else’s jeans.
On the desk in front of him, one of Jensen’s burner phones started to ring. Everyone jumped—Aisha actually pulled a knife—and Jensen narrowed his eyes at the phone, and then at the screen, where Cougar was holding a filthy-looking payphone to his ear and looking decidedly pissed off.
“Uh, Clay?” Jensen said, as the phone continued to ring. “Do I answer it?”
Clay sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Make sure it can’t be traced,” he said.
Jensen was already working. It was less than a minute’s work—he really needed to send a letter of complaint to the city of L.A., although their stupidity was his gain. About halfway through, the burner stopped ringing, and Jensen glanced up to watch Cougar slam the phone down on the hook and start rifling through his pockets again.
“How many nickels does he have in those pants?” Jensen blurted out, astonished.
Pooch snorted. Clay looked up at the ceiling, like it could tell him why he was stuck with a bunch of complete morons. “Before we die of old age, Jensen,” Clay said, exasperated, which was unfair and a sign that Jensen had been spoiling his team as of late. He needed to take a page from Star Trek’s book—what was it Scotty had said in Next Generation?—lie about how long it should take, and people think you’re a miracle worker.
Cougar fed some more coins into the phone, and the burner started ringing again. He looked straight up at the traffic camera across the street, like he knew that Jensen was watching—which, yes, he was, but Cougar had no way of knowing that for sure—and glowered.
Hatless, shirtless, and barefoot, Cougar nevertheless managed to look absolutely terrifying, even with the crappy video quality. It was a skill Jensen would never be able to master.
“Secured, boss,” Jensen said, already grabbing the phone.
Jensen picked up the call—unknown number. “Road kill grill,” he said, because he couldn’t not, and he would never get an opportunity like this again. Besides, there was always the chance that someone was listening in. “You kill ‘em, we grill ‘em.”
On the screen, Jensen watched Cougar experience a sudden full-body twitch. “Jensen,” he said, but what he meant was “Stop that or I’m hanging up on you right now.” Still, if he was using names, he had to believe they were secure, and Jensen trusted Cougar’s judgment more than most.
“Speaking,” he chirped back, relieved. “Good to hear your voice.”
He had hardly finished speaking before Clay was yanking the phone from his hands, setting it to speakerphone and putting it down on the desk. “Cougar,” he said. “What the hell is going on?”
There was a brief pause. “Misunderstanding, boss,” Cougar said at last. Jensen dropped his forehead to the desk with a heavy thump. A misunderstanding, what the fuck?
“Really,” Clay said, but it seemed that no further explanation was coming. “What do you need? Pickup?”
Onscreen, Cougar looked back up at the traffic cam. “Yeah,” he said. “Jensen tracked me?”
Jensen snorted. “Of course,” he said. “I’d have done it faster, too, if—”
Clay cut him off. “I’m coming to get you,” he said, standing up and checking his pockets, his weapons. “Turn on your tracker and start walking. I don’t want to be anywhere near that building.”
“Clay, he’s not wearing shoes,” Pooch said, piping up for the first time to give voice to his disapproval. “This is Los Angeles. He’s gonna pick up an STD just walking down the sidewalk.”
Cougar and Aisha snorted at almost the same time. It was a little creepy.
Clay gave Pooch the stink-eye, picked up the phone, and took it off speakerphone, with that particular look in his eye that said he was hoping someone would maintain a professional attitude but knowing that it just wasn’t going to happen. Jensen took the security camera feeds off the projector, but left them on his laptop screen, where he could keep an eye on them—just because Cougar said there wasn’t an issue didn’t negate the fact that he had been knocked out and essentially kidnapped.
That hard knot of panic in his chest was easing, but it wouldn’t go away fully until Jensen could see Cougar with his own eyes, maybe implant a sub-dermal tracker—he should put one in all of them, as a matter of fact, no matter how loudly the Losers protested. It had taken too long to follow his trail, even if it seemed to have ended up alright.
There was a flicker of movement on the laptop screen—Cougar, slinging the rifle case forward so he could reach around with his free hand and activate the GPS tracker.
“Jensen, follow him,” Clay ordered, tilting the phone away from his mouth. “Let’s not do this again.” He hung up without another word—on camera, Cougar looked down at the phone and looked even more pissed—and started to stalk toward the door.
“Take him a shirt and some goddamn shoes, too,” Pooch shouted at his back. Clay slammed the door behind him.
* * *
“Where do you think his clothes went?” Jensen wondered, idly hopping from camera to camera as Cougar wandered, barefoot, through the streets of Los Angeles. It was one of the few things Jensen liked about big cities—plenty of surveillance, and hardly anyone looked twice at a half-dressed man carrying a case nearly as tall as he was down the sidewalk.
“Don’t ask questions you don’t want answered, man,” Pooch said. Aisha started sharpening her knives, but since she wasn’t yet staring at anyone while she was doing it, he figured it was because they needed sharpening and not because she was actively threatening anyone.
“But I do want answers. Those are not his pants, Pooch. His clothes are missing, and he is wearing someone else’s pants. And where did he get those nickels? Did he have to do some kind of stripping act to get free, and they paid him in coins instead of small bills?”
Pooch choked. Aisha actually paused in her knife-sharpening to raise an eyebrow at him.
“Jensen, man, why?” Pooch’s voice took on a pathetic waver. “I love you all, okay, I love you dearly in a very heterosexual way, and I really do not want to think about any of your pants, or—or about anybody stripping. Can’t we just sit here, quietly, and not talk about any of that for, like, two minutes?”
The silence was long, and profound, two minutes ticking down on the clock. It made Jensen’s skin itch. Just because he wasn’t saying anything didn’t mean he wasn’t thinking about it—and thinking about Cougar and the pants and the nickels and the potential stripping put him on a chain of thought that led to— “Did you know that eighty percent of women admitted to faking an orgasm?”
“Shit, Jensen,” Pooch yelped. “That’s even worse. Why the hell would you say a thing like that?”
Aisha paused in sharpening her knives again to look up and finally contribute to the conversation. “Every man has been with a woman who has faked orgasm,” she said firmly. Jensen thought about opening his mouth to argue, and changed his mind when Aisha added, “And any man who believes otherwise has experienced it more than once.”
If Cougar had been there, he would have seen the bad, bad, bad thought coming and stopped Jensen before the words could escape, because Cougar always knew when Jensen was about to ask for a knife to the face. As it was, Jensen’s word-to-mouth filter failed and he found himself speaking. “Have you ever faked an orgasm?”
Pooch yelped again, a high and wordless protest, and slapped a hand over his eyes—whether it was to express just how completely done he was with the conversation, or to be able to truthfully say he hadn’t actually seen Aisha castrate Jensen and light his balls on fire, Jensen couldn’t say.
For some reason, though, Aisha accepted the question at face value and simply answered. “No,” she said serenely, although she did start sharpening her already-too-sharp knives again, and maybe she wasn’t as serene as Jensen had thought. “If a man cannot satisfy me, I will tell him so.”
A pause again, where Pooch peeked out at them both from between his fingers, as if hoping perhaps the conversation might end without any more horrifying revelations or bloodshed, and Jensen and Aisha simply looked at each other.
“…With words?” Jensen said at last, just to be certain.
Aisha held her newly sharpened knife up to the light, where it glittered like a diamond, or, more accurately, like a very sharp knife that had probably been introduced to the genitals of the many lovers that had displeased her. Jensen was suddenly, horribly acquainted with what Clay’s current sex life probably felt like—a little aroused and a lot terrified.
She didn’t say no, but it was pretty strongly implied.
* * *
Jensen was waiting by the door without looking like he was waiting by the door when Clay and Cougar finally made it back to the safe house, which pretty much meant that he planted himself behind his computer and tried not to twitch. This also meant that when Cougar finally did come in, Pooch got there first, calling out a greeting and clapping him on the back.
Clay had, in fact, grabbed Cougar a shirt and a pair of shoes, but Jensen was the one to return the hat, dropping it onto Cougar’s head before dragging the other man in for a quick hug. “Don’t fight me on this one,” he said archly before he stepped back. “You really freaked me out, man.”
Cougar just shrugged and adjusted the hat on his head, but he looked pleased, which meant he had chosen to let Jensen get away with it. “Thought I’d lost this,” he said.
“Nah, course not,” Jensen said. “Like we’d leave it behind. You love that hat more than your own mother.”
“But not in the same way,” Pooch cut in, miming kissy-kissy faces at him.
Cougar smirked, tipped the hat back and winked; Jensen started snickering.
“Alright, children,” Clay said loudly, leaning against the door frame, but Jensen could see that he looked content, happier now that he had all his team safely within his sights. “Cougar, I know we debriefed in the car, but is there anything else we need to deal with right now? Anything that can’t wait?”
Cougar shook his head. “Nada, boss.”
“Then we’ll go over everything in the morning—ah, afternoon. Get some sleep, guys. It’s been a long couple days.”
There was a chorus of affirmatives—well, Jensen and Pooch chorused, and Cougar nodded once, decisively. Aisha just watched, and when Clay pushed off the door frame and walked toward the back of the warehouse, where he had claimed the single small room with a door, she followed along behind casually, as if everyone wasn’t already aware that they were about to either fuck or fight.
As long as no one died, Jensen didn’t want to know.
Still, he watched them go, just like Pooch and Cougar. “One of these days, that girl is going to kill him in his sleep, and he won’t even care,” Pooch said, marveling. “Damn. I’d rather get naked with a bunch of piranhas.”
“Now who’s imagining people naked?” Jensen said and pointed at Pooch, triumphant.
Pooch groaned, and Cougar eyeballed the two of them warily, looking back and forth. The look on his face was a suspicious sort of confusion. Jensen could sympathize—knowing the Losers, he could very well not want to know.
“You were shirtless, Cougs, and those are not your pants,” Jensen said, shrugging. “Can I help it if I’m curious by nature?”
Cougar’s eyebrows did a funny dance in the shadows under the hat. His face went a little funny, too, before he decided to be amused and his expression settled. “Walking away now,” he said anyway, lofty.
“Yeah, man, get out of here,” Pooch said, grinning now. “Jensen might let his curiosity get the better of him and jump you or something.”
“Hey!” Jensen said, wronged. “I would never.” He paused, thought about it. “Well, I’d definitely ask permission first. It’s just common decency.”
“Not tonight, dear,” Cougar said, dry as a desert. “I have a headache.”
Pooch busted up laughing. Jensen started to laugh, too, because Cougar rarely let his sense of humor out to play anymore, and it was good to encourage these types of things, except—
As Cougar turned to walk away, Jensen saw the little trickle of blood that had dried on the back of Cougar’s neck, under his hair—probably from where his friendly neighborhood kidnappers had knocked him out.
Oh, yeah, he had a headache, alright.
Jensen laughed, to cover the fact that he felt a little sick. If the hit had been just a little bit harder—if the kidnappers had been anyone else, had shot first and asked questions later—then Jensen could have easily been made to listen to Cougar die over his earpiece, too far away and too useless to do anything at all. It didn’t sit well with him, especially because it was Cougar. It would be bad enough if it were Clay, fucking awful if it were Pooch—he had a family, for fuck’s sake—but Jensen was suddenly certain—one-hundred-and-ten percent sure—that if he let Cougar die alone, he might as well eat his own gun and be done with it.
* * *
Clay indeed explained everything in the morning, for a given value of explained, and also for a given value of morning, since it was almost six at night. “And after calling around to a few of our contacts, they decided to believe his story, and let him go,” Clay said, concluding his rather unsatisfactory tale.
Jensen narrowed his eyes, because that sounded like he was finished, and Jensen did not find the explanation adequate. “So you’re saying that Cougar was attacked and taken prisoner by a group of militant, anti-establishment environmental rights activists—” and here he paused, because a phrase like that needed the emphasis, “—because they thought we were working for arms dealers.” It wasn’t like they didn’t have illegally acquired weapons, too—Jensen thought that was a little hypocritical of them.
“Arms dealers that your intel links back to Max,” Clay said, nodding. “And to terrorism,” he tacked on as an afterthought, which it probably was in his mind.
“Right, right,” Jensen said, because he had been up for a few extra hours, cracking the encryption on the data he had gathered and finding the ties to their personal psycho super-spook. Clay wasn’t wrong. “But now that they know we’re not, in fact, the ones selling weapons to terrorist organizations, they want us to go take out the people who are.”
“At least they asked nicely,” Pooch said, sardonic. It was nice to know Jensen wasn’t the only one put off by this whole concept.
A few feet away, Cougar snorted. Jensen glanced over and saw that he had tied his hair up in a low knot under his hat, the bump on his head invisible underneath. “Right,” Jensen said, nodding, “they might have tied him up and taken all his clothes, but at least they said please.”
Aisha cut in. “We can use this to get to Max,” she said, eager. “The more we slow down his operations, the easier it becomes to catch him.”
Jensen opened his mouth, ready to point out just how utterly dumb the whole idea was, but Pooch beat him to the punch. “So what’s the plan?” he asked Clay, half a step away from rolling his eyes. “Go in and blow the place up, just because a bunch of kidnappers asked us to?”
“Of course not,” Clay said, sounding affronted.
“Oh,” Jensen said, honestly surprised. “Well—good.”
“We’ll do recon first, obviously,” Clay continued. “From what Jensen found, and from what Cougar’s, uh, contacts tell us, the first step is to head to Arizona.”
That wasn’t exactly the point Pooch had been making, but there were bigger issues to focus on. Jensen frowned. “From what I found, our heavily-weaponed friends are in New Mexico,” he said. “Why Arizona?”
“Arizona is the stop before ours on the gun-running chain in the southwest,” Clay said. “Before we head for New Mexico, we need a way to get into a compound full of very armed, very jumpy men. I was thinking that we should go in as arms dealers ourselves.”
“Why would they need guns?” Pooch asked. “If they’ve got regular shipments coming in from—oh, I see where this is going. You want to sell them their own stolen guns?”
Clay looked excited, which promised explosions in their future. “It gets us through the front door,” he said.
“Aw, come on, man,” Pooch said, slapping a hand to his forehead. “Can’t we have one plan that isn’t batshit insane?”
Aisha spoke up. “This is hardly the most difficult thing we’ve done,” she said. “And it’ll be worth it, if it gets us Max.”
Max, Max, Max—Aisha was such a broken record sometimes.
“Well, boys?” Clay said, looking over at them. “Are you in or out?”
“I’m in,” Cougar said immediately, because Clay always insisted on verbal responses to these sorts of questions. His eyes were independent confirmation, gleaming under the hat. He was excited.
Well. If Cougar was up for it, Jensen was up for it. Jensen thought it over, but he was already starting to grin. If nothing else, this would be fun. “You are a crazy son of a bitch, Clay,” he informed the other man. “Promise me ten minutes alone with their computer systems, and I’m in.”
Pooch sighed, but didn’t actually look all that upset, which was how Jensen knew that he was only protesting for form’s sake. Pooch loved the crazy just as much as the rest of them. “Yeah, alright,” he said. “What’s one more near-death experience?”
“Outstanding,” Clay said, and smirked at them. “Pooch, make some calls. Get us a ride to Arizona. Jensen, I need new identities for Aisha and me.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Wayne, international arms dealers by day and the scourge of Gotham city criminals by night!” Jensen sang out, and cracked his knuckles. Oh, yes, he was definitely going to enjoy this.
“Nothing too conspicuous, Jensen,” Clay ordered. “Cougs, I want you to get up on the roof and keep an eye out tonight. Even if your—erm, acquaintances—check out, it doesn’t mean we should trust them.”
Cougar nodded briskly.
“Aisha—” Clay said, and then cut himself off when Aisha raised one perfectly shaped eyebrow. “—do whatever the hell you want.”
Aisha smirked. “I’ll help keep watch,” she said, serene, and drifted toward the door of the warehouse.
Clay watched her go. After a second, he shook himself. “I’m going to—go over the rest of the intel Jensen found,” Clay said, and wandered away.
Pooch snickered at him once he was out of earshot. “It’s better than a soap opera,” he said, and pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Alright, I’ll make those calls.” He headed for the far side of the open space, where his workbench was covered in tools, scrap metals, and half-used rolls of duct tape.
This left Jensen with his computers and with Cougar, who was propping up the wall and didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get outside for Clay’s ordered watch. Jensen supposed he wouldn’t be worried, either, if his kidnappers had offered him a whoops, sorry and then let him swan off into the sunset. Sunrise. Something like that. Jensen did have a point, though, which was: kidnapping. “So. Misunderstanding, huh?” Jensen said.
Cougar’s eyes flicked over to meet his. One shoulder lifted and dropped in half a shrug.
“Seriously, though, you gotta tell me. What happened to your pants?”
Cougar’s lips twitched. Smoothly, he pushed himself off the wall and upright, meeting Jensen’s eyes for a split second before heading for the door, presumably to go keep watch.
Jensen watched him go all the way until the heavy warehouse door shut behind him. “Right,” he said blankly. “That wasn’t actually a joke.”
* * *
When Pooch sat down next to him, Jensen didn’t think much of it, too busy gleefully hacking his way through layers of security so he could establish Clay’s oxymoronic new identity as a reputable illegal arms dealer. Aisha’s would come later—he was still working out how many terrible and embarrassing details he could work in before the international gun-running community would become suspicious and before the woman herself would decide to castrate him with a rusty spoon. He chirped out an acknowledgement of Pooch’s presence—“Poochman! Welcome to the party!”—and went straight back to trampling all over the technological creations of lesser men.
Fuck, he loved his job.
To say that he wasn’t expecting Pooch to say what he did was an understatement. As it was, he was taking a drink of soda, still typing one-handed, like a boss, when Pooch looked at him and said, “Hey, Jensen. You love Cougar, yeah?”
He flinched hard enough to rattle his keyboard and choked a little on his soda. “Uh, sure,” he said, once he had cleared his throat a few times and put down his drink. Clearly, this was going to be one of those conversations. He didn’t stop typing, though. Multitasking was his greatest skill. “Of course. I love all you guys, Poochy, but Cougar’s my favorite.” He paused, thought about it. “Uh, no offense or anything. You know what we have is special.”
Pooch looked more amused than offended, and accepted the fist bump that Jensen offered, because Pooch was great like that. Jensen went back to merrily hacking away.
“But you love Cougar, right, man?” Okay, maybe Pooch wasn’t that great. Jensen narrowed his eyes, fingers slowing and finally coming to a stop. He put his hands down on his desk and turned to face Pooch.
“We’re not about to have a conversation about the difference between liking someone and like-liking someone, are we?” Jensen said, suspicious. “Because I had one of those with my niece once, and I don’t want to do it again. That was the worst conversation of my life.”
It really had been. Considering all the shit that had happened in his life so far, that was really saying something.
Pooch just rolled his eyes. “Stop deflecting,” he said.
“I’m not deflecting!” He absolutely was, and he was doing it badly. “You’re deflecting!”
Damn it, and now he had reverted to arguing like a kindergartener. Pooch got that smug look on his face, the one that said he knew that he had won. “The sooner you admit it, the sooner we can stop having this conversation,” he said.
Jensen sighed and let his head drop down to the top of the desk with a hollow clunk. His glasses dug into the bridge of his nose, so it hurt more than he had expected. “I hate you,” he said, muffled, but when Pooch reached over to pat his back sympathetically, Jensen let him. He felt pretty damn pathetic, and at least Pooch wouldn’t make fun of him for it.
“You should tell him,” Pooch said, sounding reasonable and not at all like the crazy person that he absolutely was.
Jensen rolled his head to the side—okay, ow, glasses, that really hurt—and gave him a look that he hoped conveyed just how crazy of an idea that was. “Are you crazy?” he said, just in case Pooch hadn’t gotten the message, which was: crazy. He was crazy, it was crazy, all Pooch’s ideas were bad ideas and Jensen was never listening to him again.
Pooch shrugged. “What could it hurt?” he said.
“What could it—what could it hurt?” Jensen repeated, flabbergasted. “What about, I don’t know, absolutely everything?” He tried to wave his arms around a bit for emphasis, but it was an awkward angle since his head was still down on the desk. “Our friendship, the team, finding Max—shit, he’s sitting right outside, I shouldn’t even be having this conversation with you right now!”
Pooch looked briefly cowed, but then stubbornness won over. “You can’t just pine forever, man. He’s going to find out eventually.”
“I can and I will,” Jensen said, firm, and finally lifted his head off the desk. This was serious. Also, his face really hurt. Stupid glasses. “Am I that obvious? Does everyone know?”
“No,” Pooch admitted, and Jensen let his head thump right back down onto his desk, this time avoiding the glasses. Double score! “I only got it because I saw your face right after he went missing.” He lifted a single shoulder, a peculiar half-shrug. “Saw a lot of things in a different light, after that, but you treat him the same as always. Huh.”
Jensen interrupted before Pooch could follow that train of thought to its inevitable conclusion and ask him just how long, precisely, it had been. “I told you. Everything is fine. This system has been proven effective, and I am sticking to it.”
“Still think you should tell him,” Pooch grumbled. “It’s Cougs, man. You can’t seriously think he’d—I dunno, shoot you in the face or whatever it is you’re worried about. He’s your friend.”
Jensen knew that, which was exactly why he didn’t want to do it. Cougar would be—well, not nice about it, exactly, but he wouldn’t be mean, and he probably wouldn’t shoot anyone. He would turn Jensen down, and then they would keep going as they had been, because they were grown-ups, they had a job to do, and you didn’t let a little thing like awkward love confessions from your best friend screw that up. And in the end Jensen would end up doing the exact same thing he was doing now, except he’d just be sad and pathetic instead of secretly sad and pathetic, and he preferred the option where Cougar didn’t know about any of it.
But Pooch was giving him that look, the one that said this car isn’t going anywhere until you work out your personal issues, buddy, and Jensen sighed, sat up, and threw his hands in the air. “Fine!” he said, manic. “Fine, I’ll do it. In fact, I’ll do it right now, and afterwards we’re never going to talk about this again.”
Pooch’s smug look slipped a little, but Jensen was on a roll. “Hey, Cougar!” he shouted, loud enough to be heard clearly across the warehouse and out the front door, where Cougar would be standing guard with Aisha. “Cougs!”
There was a light thump, probably Cougar jumping off the ladder from the roof rather than climbing down. Such a show-off.
“Jensen,” Pooch hissed, “no. This is not what I meant and you know it—”
Cougar appeared in the doorway, hat and head tilted a little as if to ask, what?
Jensen grinned at him, and beside him, Pooch put his head in his hands. “Pooch says I should tell you that I love you,” he called over, nice and loud and clear. “So, yeah, man, you’re my best friend, and I love you. I think you’re great. You are the wind beneath my wings, and all that.”
There was a tiny, pathetic sound from Pooch next to him.
Cougar reached up and tipped the hat back so he could meet Jensen’s eyes. What’s your point?
“That’s it,” he said cheerfully. “Just letting you know.”
There was a pause where Cougar considered that, as well as the way Pooch had curled in on himself and looked like he was trying very hard to make spontaneous combustion a real thing. “Okay,” he said finally, shrugging. “Me too.”
Pooch made another one of those pathetic noises, like he was a puppy someone was stepping on. “Why do I do this to myself?” he said mournfully, but it was muffled by his hands and Jensen could pretend not to hear it.
Cougar looked from Pooch back to Jensen, who shrugged—he wasn’t planning on explaining, and Cougar would accept that—and then the hat tipped back down and Cougar disappeared back outside, flicking a quick salute over his shoulder as he went.
“Bye, Cougs!” Jensen shouted after him. “Good talk!”
“I hate you,” Pooch said, his face still in his hands. “You are the reason the military passed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“Then you shouldn’t have asked,” Jensen said primly, and went back to his hacking. Hacking was fun and it never made you talk about your feelings. “Isn’t that the whole point?”
* * *
If Jensen was honest with himself, Pooch probably wasn’t the only one who had figured it out.
Cougar wouldn’t have noticed because the whole point was for Cougar not to notice. Jensen loved him, yeah, but he wasn’t going to pine like a sappy Victorian heroine; part of the reason he loved him was their interactions, their friendship, how easy and comfortable it was to be around him. He wasn’t about to moon over him or make silly cow eyes at him whenever he walked into a room if it meant their friendship might go away. More than anything, Jensen wanted—needed—to keep what they already had, so he didn’t act weird and it didn’t get weird, and long story short Cougar didn’t know.
As for the others, well. Aisha was new, and for all she knew Jensen and Cougar’s interactions had always worked the way they did. And besides, she couldn’t care less what any of the Losers—other than Clay—did in their free time. Roque—back when Roque was still in the picture—wouldn’t have known an interpersonal relationship if it slapped him in the face. Jensen still thought he had been repressing a major man-crush on Clay, and that was why Aisha had pissed him off so much.
Clay, though, Clay probably knew about it, because Clay knew everything about Jensen, and the fact that he hadn’t said anything was the main reason that Jensen was mostly unconcerned that he was maybe a little bit stupidly in love with Cougar. It never interfered with the job, the team, or their friendship, and Clay would have told him long ago if he was making it an issue. Clay had long since proven that he was all too willing to have uncomfortable conversations if he thought it was necessary.
Jensen had been given his first talk, the talk, by Clay when he had first joined the Losers—not when he had been assigned to Clay’s team for the first time, because techs were often floaters and no one had imagined, then, that Jensen would carve himself a place in the unit and stay. No, Clay had given him this particular talking-to a few missions later, after a clusterfuck in Afghanistan where Jensen had walked Clay and Roque through disarming the latest model IED strapped to the only available getaway car while carrying a hard drive full of data and an unconscious Pooch through an enemy compound.
Almost every instant of the mission itself was embedded into his mind. He had been so punch-drunk on adrenaline and sheer, unbridled terror for his life that he could still, years later, remember every word he had said, every step taken, every shot fired. There was the way Pooch had hung limply over his back in a fireman’s carry, balanced just precariously enough that Jensen could use his gun, but not reload—shouting at Clay over the earpiece, questions and directions—it’s the red—no, it’s the blue wire, cut the blue and Clay screaming back over gunfire and whatever ruckus Roque was causing—are you sure?—and the honest answer he didn’t mean to give came spilling out of his mouth anyway—no, sir, but it’s 50-50 and it’s always the blue wire in the movies—finally spending his last bullet and running, running.
He had rounded a blind corner and gone skidding to a halt as he came face to face with a shouting hostile with an AK-47. There had been just enough time to think shit, this is it and half-turn so he was mostly between Pooch and the line of fire as the barrel swung around to point at him, and then there was the sound of shattering glass, a gunshot. He had jerked back reflexively, but the bullet he was expecting didn’t hit him, and then the hostile had dropped like a stone and he had finally thought to look to the broken window.
Three hundred yards out, he had imagined he saw a sniper scope wink at him.
“Nice shooting, Hawkeye,” he had called out over the comms, trying to breathe through the stitch in his side and not really expecting a response, and fuck the exit—he would have cover if he broke through the window, and it would do him better than trying to wander around and find the door.
It wasn’t until later, when they were climbing into the car, that everything had gone a little blurry. He knew Clay had been begrudgingly impressed with him, and Roque was furious about the guesswork with the wires even after Jensen had pointed out that it had worked—after all, bad guys watch movies, too. Pooch was conscious and fine, had refused to let Clay take the driver’s seat, so it was just Jensen crawling into the back, a row behind Cougar and Roque, feeling the adrenaline run off and letting himself crash a little.
“Nice shot,” he had told Cougar again, “thanks,” because that was the sort of thing that should be said loudly and often after someone saved your ass, okay, Roque? And Cougar had actually turned around to nod at him, even smiled a little under the brim of his hat, and it wasn’t until the smile slipped away and his eyes had widened that Jensen looked down and realized that, hey, it wasn’t just a stitch in his side from running and carrying 200 pounds of dead weight through enemy fire, and he had maybe been shot. Just a little.
Jensen thought he had maybe told the others this, but that was the point where his memory had failed altogether; he had passed out watching Cougar scramble over the back of his seat to get to him.
But all that was beside the point. The point was Clay—Clay had given him the talk after that mission, a few weeks later when Clay had requested that Jensen be permanently assigned to Clay’s team and he had become an official Loser. The talk had gone something like this:
Clay: “Here’s how this unit works, Jensen. I don’t give a flying shit what you do in your free time, and I don’t care who or what you sleep with.”
Jensen [rendered momentarily speechless]: “Uhhhhhh.”
Clay: “On a mission, your priorities are the mission first, then your team. Everything else is your own fucking business, and as long as I don’t have to deal with it, I don’t give a shit.”
Clay: “Glad we had this talk.”
And then both Jensen and Clay had stared awkwardly at each other until Clay had finally made up some excuse about paperwork that even Jensen recognized as bullshit, because everyone knew Clay never did his own paperwork. Anyway, it was simultaneously the most embarrassing and the most supportive way any commanding officer had ever chosen to say, “Hey, I’m aware that you like to suck literal dicks, and I don’t care,” and for years after that no one had ever brought it up again. He hadn’t even been really sure that the team knew until Pooch had made him talk about his feelings.
Still, Clay was right, and it really was that simple for the unit. Sure, they all had family and friends outside the army, and Pooch would happily punch anyone who even thought about Jolene with a funny look on their face, but on a mission it was just them and the job, and nothing else mattered. It was especially true after Max—after Bolivia—when any contact with the outside world wasn’t safe, and if they didn’t have each other, they had nothing.
But even before Bolivia, it had always been that way. Pooch was the lynchpin, the moderator, the getaway driver—the one who kept them all sane and tied them all together, the one who brought them all home. Clay and Roque were glued together at the hip, action and reaction, decision and precision—or—well, they had been, until Roque left the team to a firing squad and then died badly, but none of them liked to think about that. And that left Jensen with Cougar—the hacker and the sniper, two long-range experts who were surprisingly deadly in close quarters.
Jensen couldn’t say when Cougar had become his friend, let alone his best friend, but it had been such a gradual shift that he honestly hadn’t noticed. One day Jensen had simply woken up and realized that he and Cougar were having conversations without words, realized that he could tell what Cougar was thinking from the smallest tilt of the hat, the slightest change in breathing over the comms. Then there had been the day where Cougar had spoken exclusively in Spanish to piss off Clay, who spoke terrible Spanish—Jensen didn’t speak Spanish, either, but he spoke Cougar, and it was enough to get him by.
So they were friends, yes, best friends, and no one on the team found it weird anymore that the loudest and the quietest had gravitated together, easy as breathing. Opposites attract, after all.
So maybe that was why Jensen was so unsurprised to look up one day and think, oh, of course. I’m in love with Cougar. It felt almost inevitable.
Nothing changed, because, in retrospect, it was obvious—he had known it for ages, even if he hadn’t put a name to it, so there was no use getting upset about it now.
* * *
Arizona was hot and dry, and Jensen didn’t know why he had expected anything different.
“I don’t know why I expected anything different,” he said, lying on his back on the floor and staring up at the white ceiling, which had some questionable stains that were about par for the course with fleabag motels like this one. The room that Jensen, Pooch, and Cougar were sharing was actually clean enough, if not exactly comfortable—Pooch had tinkered with the questionable-looking AC unit for a while until it did something other than clank and belch out gusts of hot air, but the room was still nothing like cool. “But just in case anyone is unaware: fuck, it’s hot. Is this what it feels like in Death Valley? Like actual death?”
Jensen could tell that Pooch was feeling the heat, too. He had taken one of the beds and was engaged in some epic ceiling-staring of his own, which Jensen would be able to see if he bothered to tip his head to the side. As it was, he could only see the ceiling and Cougar, who had claimed the table next to him so that he could clean his rifle, which meant that on top of being really, really hot the room also smelled like gunmetal and oil. It was familiar and weirdly reassuring.
“You served in Afghanistan and Iraq, Jensen,” Pooch said a beat late, syrupy slow. “In the summer. In full gear.”
Jensen thought that might be a pointed dig at the fact that he had stripped down to his boxers and undershirt, but he felt that was unfair. At least he was wearing clothes at all, unlike Clay, who had stripped off his shirt completely even before disappearing into the other hotel room with Aisha, where they were probably working up a different kind of sweat.
Had he said that part out loud? It was too hot to tell, let alone care, but judging by the way Cougar was smirking at him, he had indeed lost his thoughts-to-mouth filter. Stupid Cougar, with his stupid smirk and his stupid hat—he was fully dressed and looked perfectly cool, because even the stifling, oppressive heat wasn’t enough to break through his force field of sniper badassery.
Cougar rolled his eyes at him, smirk growing a little wider, and Jensen groaned and rolled over onto his stomach, the frames of his glasses digging into the side of his face, just so he didn’t have to look at him anymore. “You heard that, too, huh?”
“Don’t worry, man,” Pooch said. “It’s too hot to work up to a really good mocking.”
Jensen glanced back over at Cougar. “Cougs’ eyebrows are giving it a pretty good go,” he said, reaching up to pull off his glasses and then pressing the side his face into the carpet. Muffled, he added, “I don’t have the mental capacity to deal with this right now. Wake me up when Clay wants us to move.”
“You know that’s not until tomorrow night, right?”
Jensen groaned—he had been trying not to think about that. It was only going to get hotter the longer they waited. He shut his eyes, trying to really get into the whole not-moving thing. It was almost nice, if it weren’t for how he felt like he was melting.
“We could go to a bar,” Pooch suggested. “Relax a bit, get cool, have a few drinks. Jensen can continue his quest to find the one woman in the whole of the United States who finds his weird geekery attractive and then somehow fail to have sex with her.”
“Oh, ha ha,” Jensen said, still muffled by the carpet. “I’d come up with some epic comeback, but it’s too hot for witty banter, and definitely too hot for alcohol. Or moving.”
There was a rustling sound, probably Pooch standing up. “So that’s a no, then?”
“That’s a no,” Jensen confirmed.
There was a telling silence—specifically, the one that told the listeners to fuck right off, Cougar had better things to do.
“Yeah, alright,” Pooch said, and laughed. “See you later, boys.”
Footsteps crossed the room, and then the door opened and shut. Jensen kept his eyes shut and drifted a little, until he was on the edge between asleep and awake. He would have liked to sleep—it was rare that he was relaxed enough and didn’t have something to do, but Cougar was keeping watch and the mission was hurry-up-and-wait at present. Sleep would have been nice.
Unfortunately, there was a stupid beam of light through the windows that was cutting right through his eyelids, even with the way his face was still half-pressed into the floor, and it was driving him a little crazy. He could move, he supposed, but the rest of him was comfortable and as long as he held perfectly still he could almost ignore the oppressive heat. He settled for scrunching his eyes more tightly shut, and then, when that didn’t help, scrunching up his whole face.
Ugh, he was going to have to move.
He was gearing up for it—these things take careful planning and effort, obviously—when something settled over his face, and there was a blessed cessation of the hated light. Surprised, he cracked his eyes open and found himself face to face with the inside of Cougar’s hat, which had been propped carefully against his head so that it shielded his eyes but wouldn’t make it too stuffy for him to breathe.
Cougar had willingly sacrificed the hat. Jensen must have looked more pathetic than he had thought.
“Cougs, man, I love you,” he mumbled, already slipping back toward sleep. “Thanks.”
If Cougar responded, Jensen didn’t hear it.
* * *
The plan called for Jensen to come in from one direction and Cougar and Aisha to come in from the other, with Cougar taking up a nest higher up and Pooch keeping watch from outside. It was a good plan, in that it wasn’t much of a plan at all—nothing fancy, just get in and get out with the intel and the guns. Easy-peasy.
To get close enough without being seen, Jensen had taken a circuitous route. “Parkour, parkour, parkour,” he chanted to himself as he took a leap from the top of one storage container to the other, and then down to the ground.
“I thought I told you to stop watching those videos before missions, Jensen,” Clay said, exasperated.
“You told me to stop watching them on ‘that YouVideo website,’ though,” Jensen said, finger-quotes and all. “I watch them on YouTube. It’s a totally different thing.” Examining the fence between him and his destination, he shrugged and ran, practically vaulting over it—two steps up and both hands had a solid grip at the top, and then he was over and landing lightly on the other side. “Nailed it.”
“Nice form,” Pooch said, smirk audible.
“Six out of ten,” Cougar added.
Jensen gasped dramatically, but quietly, because he was technically trying to be stealthy. “Only six?” he said, affronted. “Come on, Cougs. That was at least an eight.”
Clay interrupted. “Cougar, are you in position?”
Jensen resisted the urge to roll his eyes—obviously, if Cougar could see Jensen on the ground, he was in position up in his nest. The little pause before Cougar’s affirmative carried a little of that same thought—well, duh.
“Then lead us in.”
After that it was just a matter of following Cougar’s quiet instructions, turning when he needed to turn and hiding whenever a patrol went by—there was a lot of security for what was basically a factory and some office buildings, which meant they were probably in the right place.
At least there was a (convenient) water tower in the center for Cougar to get a good view.
Jensen found his target fairly easily, bypassing the triple-locked, electronically guarded door for the simple latch-locked window. Security redundancies were useless if they weren’t applied universally, and Jensen wasn’t going to waste the effort of hacking a keypad if he could jiggle a knife through a window frame and get the same results. By the time he was slipping inside, Cougar had switched his attention over to Clay and Aisha and was leading them to their destination as well.
The building was dark, but not deserted; there would be random patrols every fifteen minutes or so. Jensen followed blueprints he had memorized to the server room and began to do a little digging, paying only partial attention to the low murmur of voices in his ear as Clay and Aisha went hunting for the guns.
The outside world went away for a little while as he coaxed the computers into spilling their secrets. It took a second for Cougar’s voice to register, low and intimate in his ear. “Jensen, movement.”
“Almost done,” he murmured back, typing quickly but not hurriedly. Rushing and making mistakes would just slow him down overall.
Cougar gave him another fifteen seconds, but the silence in his ear was becoming more and more tense. Jensen finished and pulled his drive free, tucking it into his vest, and remembered at the last second to shut the computers back down.
“Jensen,” Cougar said, in that special tone that meant that he was going to have to start shooting, and Jensen felt an extra burst of adrenaline kick in. Damn, out of time. Jensen looked up, ready to move, climbed to his feet, pushed away from the desk, and—
“Freeze,” a voice ordered, which was cliché as hell and also a little disappointing. Where had these guards gotten their training—old Hawaii Five-O episodes?
Jensen froze anyway, because even he wasn’t stupid enough to disobey an angry voice giving orders when there was a gun pressed to the back of his head. “Sure thing, man,” Jensen said, nice and slow, and flicked his eyes to the window, where he could see Cougar’s position—not Cougar, of course, Cougar was too good for that, but he could see the place where Cougar should be, and that meant Cougar should be able to see him. “Whatever you say. I’m going to stand right here and not move a single muscle. Not a single one.”
The army had beaten it into all of them—stay put, no matter what, and don’t make the sniper guess where you’re going to be.
“Cougar, do you have the shot?” Clay’s voice said in his ear.
“Shut up,” the guard said, and the gun pressed in harder. “Put your hands above your head.”
“No,” Cougar said, frustrated. “Jensen’s blocking line of sight.”
Jensen thought, very clearly, shit, and put his hands above his head. “I don’t want to get shot, man,” he said, more to Cougar than the guard—don’t shoot through me, I’ll get out of your way.
“Whatever you’re going to do, do it fast,” Clay said in his ear. “Don’t let him radio it in.”
“I said shut up,” the guard snarled at the same time, and hit Jensen in the back of the head with the gun; Jensen went with the impact and stumbled forward a couple steps, until he was pressed up against the front of the desk. The guard went with him.
“No good,” Cougar said. “I’ll have to move—”
“No,” Jensen said, too fast, before he thought about it, and he could actually feel the guard behind him tense. Fuck.
“No?” the guard said, surprised and indignant. “I’m the one with the gun, asshole. If I say shut up, you fucking shut the fuck up.”
Well, okay, if he wasn’t going to shoot immediately, then there was a chance—piss him off, get him distracted, and get the fuck out of Cougar’s way.
“Dude, fuck, I can’t, it’s a thing, a thing I can’t control,” Jensen babbled, tracking the pressure of the gun against his head. “I talk when I get nervous, I can’t help it.”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” the guard said.
“No, nope, not kidding. And I definitely get nervous when there’s a gun pointed at me.” And the gun was slacking, pulling away a little—score one every time for nervous babble. No one ever suspected anything from the guy with verbal diarrhea.
“Ready,” Cougar said quietly, already right there with him, and Jensen grinned like a maniac.
“Bullshit,” the guard snapped, but the gun drifted a little further to the side. Jensen took his chance, twisted and dropped, and then a lot of things happened almost at once—the gun went off right in his ear; the guard lunged for him and caught his mic instead, yanking it off; Cougar took the shot at the exact moment that Jensen slammed his head into the desk going down, and he and the guard hit the floor at almost the same moment.
A little of the blood splatter hit Jensen in the face—gross—and he took a second to just stay on the floor and regroup. He shook his head to clear it a little as he wiped at his face, trying to get rid of the blood before it dried on. “Ew, fuck, that is so nasty,” he said, maybe too loud, but it wasn’t like he could hear himself over the ringing in his ears. “Nice shot, Cougs, but negative points for style.” There was no response.
Oh, right, his mic was gone. He couldn’t hear anything over the earpiece, really, since the gun had gone off on that side, but a little of the ringing white noise was starting to sound shout-y and frantic, probably because he hadn’t come up off the floor. He pushed up into a sitting position—whoa, head rush—and when he was sure he wouldn’t be sick, he grabbed his mic—out of a puddle of more blood, great.
He started fiddling with it as his hearing started to come back, blinking heavily to clear his blurry vision. He must have hit his head harder than he had thought. “—sen, what’s your status?” Clay was growling, but the mic was toast and it was going to take time he didn’t have to fix it. There would be guards coming at any moment, drawn by the gunshots. He should get up. He should let them see he was okay, should get moving.
“Jensen,” Cougar said, clearly not for the first time, and it wasn’t fair to make Cougar sound like that, to make Cougar say his name like that, so Jensen dragged himself upright, leaning against the desk until he could shake his head straight again, squinted in Cougar’s direction, and held up the broken mic in one hand and made the A-Okay sign with the other.
Cougar blew out a heavy breath. “He’s up,” he reported. “Mic’s broken.” Jensen nodded and switched to the thumbs up—agreement, and proof that he could still hear them, even if they couldn’t hear him.
“Shit, we’ve got guards.” That was Pooch, out watching their exit, and it pushed Jensen into moving, headache or no headache—he was the most exposed.
“Jensen, move fast and stay in sight,” Clay barked. “We’ve got no way to hear you if you get into trouble.”
“Sure thing, boss,” Jensen said, even though Clay couldn’t hear a thing. “Way ahead of you.”
The run out was harder than the run in, because he had to basically map out a big half-circle around Cougar’s nest in order to stay in sight and still move toward the rendezvous—and he could tell when he disappeared, every time, by the way Cougar’s breathing shifted a little in his ear.
Aisha and Clay were mumbling back and forth to each other, directions and commands, and then Pooch joined them, and they started loading the weapons in the back of the truck. They were almost home free.
“Wait,” Cougar said, when he had made it most of the way to the rendezvous point, and he obeyed without question, hidden in the shadows between a wall and a couple shipping containers while one patrol passed. Cougar didn’t say anything, so he kept waiting, and then waited some more as a second patrol went by. But immediately after that there was a series of quick, sharp pops—muffled and quiet—and then Cougar came around the corner, rifle slung around his back, pistol in hand.
Jensen beamed, and moved forward to join him. “I was starting to wonder where you’d gotten to,” he said quietly. “Nice shot, by the way. Thanks.”
Cougar looked him up and down, checking him for damage and lingering a little on his face, where a spectacular bump and bruise were probably already forming, and then nodded at him. “De nada,” he said, flicking the brim of his hat. Briskly, he added, “Vámonos.” He gestured toward the rendezvous, turned to walk away.
“Oh, stop it,” Jensen said. “You know Spanish makes me feel all tingly inside,” but he followed along happily enough, and knew that Cougar was smiling, too.
* * *
They were mostly quiet as they left the compound with a shipment of illegal weapons, though they did share some grins as they made it out without anyone the wiser. Normally Jensen would be carrying the conversation, but he was still shaking off a headache—he had hit the desk pretty hard going down, if the goose-egg he could feel forming on his forehead was any indication—and he found that he didn’t much feel like talking.
That silence lasted all the way to the first time they switched cars, when Clay disappeared for fifteen minutes and came back with their new truck.
Jensen took one look and, suddenly, there was plenty to say, and by god, Jensen was going to say it.
* * *
Jensen and Pooch were both cackling, which Clay seemed to find disturbing, but that could be because Pooch was also driving down the highway a good twenty miles faster than the speed limit and didn’t seem to be watching the road.
“It’s not that funny!” he insisted, and then yelped, “Truck, truck, truck!”
The truck in question leaned on the horn as Pooch blew by, so close that the paint jobs probably squeaked together. “I see it, man, I see it,” Pooch said peaceably, still laughing. “And I don’t know about you, Jay, but I think it is that funny. What the fuck were you thinking, Clay?”
“It made sense at the time,” Clay said, sullen.
“Clay,” Jensen said, “you stole us a circus truck for a secondary getaway car. A Ringling Brothers, neon-painted, very obvious circus truck, and you think this is not the funniest fucking thing that’s happened to us all year?”
“It’s just so fucking perfect,” Pooch said, wheezing out the words between the laughter. “Driving around this freak show of a unit in a clown car with a bunch of stolen weapons in the back. Holy shit. Holy shit.”
Inspiration struck. “Clay just needs to grow an epic mustache and buy a top hat,” Jensen said. “He’d be a perfect ringmaster.” Pooch almost choked, but managed to get himself mostly under control when Clay shot him a glare that quickly shifted into a pout.
“Oh, please,” Aisha said, rolling her eyes at him from the cramped middle seat between Pooch and Clay. “You had to have expected this reaction, with a team like yours.”
Clay opened his mouth like he was about to argue.
“A circus truck, Clay,” Aisha repeated pointedly.
Clay paused, and then visibly deflated, his mouth clacking shut.
Jensen met Pooch’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “She’s the lion tamer,” he stage-whispered.
Pooch burst out laughing again, and almost wrapped the truck around a streetlight.
Jensen was laughing, too, too hard to speak, and when he glanced over at Cougar, who was next to him in the backseat, he found Cougar already looking back at him. Cougar’s eyes were bright, warm and relaxed, his silent version of laughing, and fuck—Cougar hadn’t looked this happy, this calm, for such a long time. Jensen felt his smile slip into something softer and warmer to match, and maybe he was showing too much, but he couldn’t find it in him to stop and it was too dark for Cougs to see much of anything, anyway. Cougar nudged him with a shoulder companionably and then stayed close, leaning in towards Jensen so there was barely an inch between them.
Okay, Jensen thought, okay, because this—this, with the team safe and alive and happy, laughing, with Cougar warm and close at his side—this might not be perfect, but it was probably the closest he was ever going to get.
Almost perfect, and they were in a goddamn Ringling Brothers truck. His life—seriously, what the fuck? Jensen kept laughing.
* * *
“Ooh,” Jensen called, pulling some shipping manifests—that weren’t actually manifests at all—up on his computer screen. “Look-y at what we have here.”
Clay popped up over his shoulder, and Jensen startled a little before choosing to pretend he had known Clay had been there the whole time. It was the thing to do, even though Pooch and Cougar were both smirking at him from opposite sides of the their new hotel room, which was a little cramped with the five of them crammed inside but did at least have air conditioning.
Aisha, as always, was ignoring them all. Jensen wasn’t entirely sure why she bothered to attend these little get-togethers when she spent most of the time acting like they were worth less attention than something sticky on the bottom of her shoe.
“What am I looking at, Jensen?” Clay said at long last, drawing Jensen back to the topic at hand.
“Well, most of this intel is useless, boss,” Jensen said, gesturing at the drive of stolen information. “Junk, really. Most of it we already know or probably could’ve guessed, and some of it we’ve actually stolen already. It does prove that those fellas down in New Mexico are going to be missing these guns, though, which is nice.”
“And this, Jensen?” Clay said, pointing at the screen, clearly trying for patience.
“This, Clay, would be what looks like a list of shipping manifests for textiles. Actually, it’s mostly paper, if you catch my drift—or, well, a cotton and linen fiber blend, so I guess that is a sort of textile, really, if you think about it.”
“Jensen,” Clay said, effectively shutting him up. “Are you saying they’re laundering money?”
Jensen could see that part finally catch Aisha’s attention.
“Yeah, yes, yup,” Jensen said, nodding frantically, and tilted the screen so Aisha could see too when she drifted up beside Clay to look over at the manifests. “Significant amounts of it, actually, and they were really familiar amounts. So I went back to Max’s courier drive for a second look.”
Jensen brought up that screen alongside the first, so that the numbers ran side by side.
“I’m not seeing anything,” Aisha said, unimpressed.
Jensen pressed a few keys. “And…voilà,” he said, hitting the enter key with a dramatic flourish, highlighting a series of numbers on either side.
“They match,” Clay said, suddenly interested.
“Wait, these guys were laundering money for Max?” Pooch said, standing up and moving to join the little huddle growing around Jensen’s computer.
Jensen shook his head. “Not exactly,” he said. “As far as I can tell, Max didn’t trust just one group to clean all his dirty money, and he certainly wouldn’t trust these guys to do it—I mean, honestly, breaking in to this place was a walk in the park—for a guy like Max security was seriously subpar. No, it looks like it ran to them through a middleman, and I’d bet just one, based on the size of the cut.” He shook his head. “Seriously, it’s miniscule. Not great. So this guy—” He paused to point at a name at the top of the screen. “Dave Avery—and seriously, that could not sound more like a random name generator or a Bugs Bunny character if it tried—this guy is responsible for Max’s money. Or, well, responsible for some of it. A very small portion.”
“He has to know Max,” Aisha said immediately. Jensen could practically hear her salivating—this was a big deal. “You don’t take on that much money without a face to face meeting. He’ll have contact information, a way to find Max if something goes wrong. This could be it, Clay. This could be how we get him.”
“Hold on, hold on,” Pooch said. “What about the New Mexico? We’ve got a pile of stolen guns stashed outside and a bunch of angry arms dealers about to go hunting for us, don’t forget. We’re just dropping all of that? Just like that?”
“This would be quicker,” Clay said, and Jensen could hear him starting to get fired up. “Easier, too. Just rattle Avery’s cage a little and watch him do the digging for us. We can always fall back on the New Mexico plan if this falls through. This is a good lead, Jensen. I think we should use it. Any arguments?” Clay looked around at all of them—Aisha first, practically vibrating in place with eagerness, then Jensen and Pooch, and finally Cougar, his eyes dark and glittering under the hat. Jensen didn’t see an ounce of hesitation there. Pooch sighed, but didn’t protest, and Jensen knew they were all agreed.
Then Cougar spoke up for the first time. “Where do we find him, Jensen?”
Jensen grinned, sharp and pleased, because he knew that, too. “Looks like we’re going to Colorado, folks,” he said, pulling up the information on his computer screen. “I hear the weather there is nice this time of year.”
Cougar tipped his hat and grinned back, something too full of teeth to really be called a smile. Jensen felt his own smile pulling wider in response.
“I have a friend,” Aisha said slowly.
“And I have a plan,” Clay added. And that, as they say, was that.
* * *
Except that was not that—if that made any sense, which Jensen was pretty sure it didn’t—but regardless, Jensen found himself dressed like a stockbroker and chasing Dave Avery across a series of rooftops in downtown Nowheresville, Colorado.
Jensen was beginning to hate Avery as much as his obviously fake name, and he said as much as he followed Avery in a precarious jump between two buildings. He was a trained special operative, for fuck’s sake, and once he caught up he was going to—
“Jensen!” Clay barked. “Less talking, more running!”
“Sir, yes, sir,” Jensen bit out, taking another jump and landing just the slightest bit off, so he was forced to throw himself forward into a roll. He came up running, still gaining ground.
Besides, Avery was running out of room. As if he had realized it, the man spun around and fired off two quick shots—Jensen threw himself to the side, and both missed. “If this is about setting a fire in your office, I said I was sorry!” Jensen shouted at him.
Avery shouted something back at him—Jensen heard “fuck you,” “traitor,” and then something about a goat and his mother that Jensen was pretty sure he hadn’t wanted to hear anyway. Jensen supposed it was only fair—Jensen had pretended to be a new hire at Avery’s company before being caught trying to hack—unsuccessfully, he might add—into his very secretive and very illegal files, and then he had maybe set off a teeny, tiny blaze as a distraction so he could go after Avery.
Why was it always him that had to go into these situations? Why not Pooch or even Clay—
“Jensen, this street cuts off at the tracks,” Aisha said over the earpiece.
“Yeah, so?” Jensen said. He was almost there—there was only two jumps between them and one between Avery and the end of the street.
Aisha practically hissed at him. “So—there’s a train coming.”
It took a second to register, and then Jensen nearly flubbed his jump and plummeted to the pavement below. He corrected, and kept moving. “Fuck,” he said blankly. “You think he’d—”
Ahead, Avery came teetering to a stop at the edge of the last roof, turned, and looked back at Jensen. Jensen made the last jump—now they were only a rooftop apart, and there was only one place for Avery to go.
Below them, a train whistle sounded, almost painfully loud. Avery looked over his shoulder, and Jensen had time for exactly one step forward before he leapt off the roof and disappeared.
“Oh, fuck me,” Jensen said, and followed.
Luckily for them both, the train was still in town and thus moving slowly, because what should have meant broken limbs at best and a tumble to a messy death at worst was actually just a shaky landing. Jensen had landed two cars behind Avery, about halfway down the train, and as Jensen was shaking himself, picking himself up and dusting himself off, Avery was doing the same. He looked almost comically surprised to turn and find Jensen still on his tail; the gun came up and went down again before Avery decided on flight over fight once more, and rabbited.
“Come on,” Jensen groaned. “Next time, Clay, it is absolutely someone else’s turn to do the epic daylight chase, okay? I’m not having fun anymore.”
“Next time, you and Pooch can be responsible for the distraction, then,” Clay said. “Aisha can do your job, and I’ll be the getaway driver.”
Jensen had an immediate, visceral reaction that basically boiled down to a hard no. “You are not driving,” he said, as opposed to any of his other arguments—he refused to sit out while Aisha worked with Cougar. He and Cougar worked together, Aisha and Clay worked together, and Pooch did the driving. That was how it went with them, and it wasn’t only because he had an instinctive response to Cougar getting paired up with anyone else that was basically just mine, mine, mine. “The last time we let you drive, you almost killed us all. Never again, we all agreed. There is legal documentation.”
“That doesn’t apply to the officially dead,” Clay pointed out mildly, which he obviously knew was a weak case, because he didn’t give Jensen a chance to respond. “Get moving, Jensen.”
While they had talked, Avery had made a precarious leap to the next train car. Jensen sighed—why couldn’t this ever be easy? “Roger that, Colonel,” he said, because there was no way he would do this for anything less than an order.
The train was on a straight path, still slow and relatively stable. Jensen sucked in a slow, deep breath, and got a running start.
His landing was heavy but solid on the next car, bringing him to his hands and knees, and he almost missed Clay’s next statement in the rush of relief. This was nuts even for them—was there a word for the fear of falling to your death while chasing a man over the top of a moving train? Whatever that phobia was called, he was going to develop it as soon as he got the hell off and back on solid ground. “You’ll have backup in a minute,” Clay said as Jensen pushed himself back to his feet. “Don’t let him get away.”
“Backup,” Jensen said in disbelief, steeling himself and starting the run-up to the next leap.
The train was starting to pull out of town, and Jensen knew that was when it would start to get really tricky. “Jensen, hold up for a second,” Pooch said, ready to make it worse. “Train’s coming up on a turn.”
“I am not enjoying this,” Jensen said, just to make sure everyone was clear, and dropped into a crouch. The train slowed into the curve but the shift was almost enough to throw off Avery, who slid a little before dropping to his knees as well.
Jensen was too far off to lunge for him if he started to fall, and they needed him alive.
There was a heavy thud somewhere behind him. Jensen turned toward the sound and found that Cougar had appeared on top of the train a few cars behind him, rifle in hand and hat somehow defying the headwind to stay firmly atop his head. “How did you get up here?” Jensen said at normal volume, trusting in the mics.
Cougar gestured up at the last building on the tracks before the edge of town, a rickety terror of an old warehouse. “Jumped,” he said.
“Right, of course,” Jensen said blankly. “You jumped, obviously. I don’t even want to know how you got up there in time.”
“Our buddy Avery is getting away, Jay,” Pooch said.
“Right, right,” Jensen said, straightening up from his crouch. “I’ll get right on that.”
Avery was moving again, so Jensen sucked in a deep breath again in preparation—the more he thought about it, the harder it became to just do it—and took the jump to the next train car. Behind him, he heard the clunk that meant that Cougar was doing the same.
Almost immediately, there was another clunk—Cougar obviously had this in the bag. Jensen got going.
The three of them were making their way steadily up toward the front of the train—“This isn’t so bad. I’m actually getting used to it, now. I am an expert at train-hopping,”—and Jensen and Cougar were steadily gaining.
“Avery,” Jensen shouted when he finally hit the back of the same car as Avery, who seemed to be trying to gear himself up for the next jump. “This is ridiculous, man. It’s not like there’s anywhere to hide up here. What did you think was going to happen?”
Avery ignored him. He shouted louder.
“Come on, man! We just need a little information!”
Avery turned back to shout at him. “Fuck you! You ruined my life, okay? I had a good job, I was making money—”
“By laundering for international terrorists,” Jensen said, exasperated.
“Jensen,” Cougar said, urgent. “There’s a tunnel.”
There was indeed a tunnel up ahead, coming into sight as the train made a turn around a hill. Judging from the increasingly insistent signage on the tracks, there was exactly two feet of clearance, no more.
“—and when he does catch up to you, I hope Max kills you nice and slow, and lets me watch!” Jensen tuned back in to find that Avery was still shouting, and it was obvious he hadn’t seen the tunnel or the warning signs. “I hope he feeds you your own dicks!”
“That’s not very nice, Dave,” Jensen said, edging towards him. He was going to have to time this perfectly. “You might hurt someone’s feelings.”
The tunnel was getting closer. “Fifteen seconds,” Cougar said quietly behind him, and it would be now or never.
“Fuck you, and fuck your friend back there!” Avery was saying all the while, raving. He still hadn’t gone for the gun in his waistband, but then again, they had known from the start that Avery wasn’t really a killer. “Don’t come any closer!”
“Sorry, buddy,” Jensen said, “but we need you mostly intact,” and then he dove forward, grabbing Avery—who had finally thought to go for his gun, but it was too late—and dropping them both down flat on the roof of the train.
Avery started to struggle only to go perfectly still as the light cut away, the roof of the tunnel passing by so close Jensen could make out the tiny flaws in the rock. Avery shouted something, but the echoes inside the tunnel made it impossible to hear. With their heads toward the back of the train and their feet towards the front, Jensen could just make out the light at the end of the tunnel—heh—when he lifted his head off the roof of the train car.
Just a little, of course. A bare inch. He kind of liked his face, and he didn’t want to scrape it off.
As the tunnel came to an end Avery shoved him away violently, and Jensen let him go, too busy trying to stop himself from rolling down the slight incline and right off the side. When he could, Jensen shoved himself toward the center of the car and then to his feet, where he found himself face to face with Avery’s gun.
“Right,” Jensen said, sighing. “Of course.”
“Don’t move,” Avery said. “Keep your hands where I can see them.”
Jensen sighed again. As if the whole train-jumping thing hadn’t been cliché enough. “Avery, buddy,” he said, perfectly calm. “I want you to look behind me, okay?”
“I’m not going to fall for that,” Avery snapped, not looking away. “Do you think I’m an idiot?”
Jensen resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose, a very Clay-like impulse he was starting to understand. “I said behind me, not behind you,” he said. “But that’s fine, you don’t have to look. Do you remember my friend?”
Avery’s eyes went wide, and his eyes flicked over Jensen’s shoulder, only to go wider still.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Jensen said, and he didn’t need to look to know Cougar would be there, steady, gun in hand. Cougar was reliable like that. “Dave—can I call you Dave?—meet Cougar.”
“Don’t call me Dave,” Avery said, as if on autopilot. He was still watching Cougar. “What do you want from me?”
“Sure, Avery, sure,” Jensen said, perfectly agreeable. “Like I said, we just want a little information.” Avery relaxed. Jensen took it as a good sign. “We’re not here to kill you. All we want is Max.”
Avery tensed up again. “No,” he said immediately, and Jensen noticed that the gun in his hands was starting to shake. “If Max finds out I squealed, he’ll hunt me down. I’ll be as good as dead.”
“Here’s the thing, buddy,” Jensen said. “Cougs back there is hands down the best sniper I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them. We used to be in the army, you know? And while he’s not a big fan of Max, he is sort of fond of me, for whatever reason. I’m pretty sure if you decide not to talk, he’ll shoot you before you can shoot me and be done with it.”
Cougar snorted, which totally wasn’t a denial.
“So come on, Avery,” Jensen said, coaxing. “I’m not asking for much. Just tell us how to find Max.”
They stared at each other for a long moment, locked in a strange standoff, Jensen and Avery and Cougar, all waiting. Slowly, haltingly, Avery lowered the gun.
“Good,” Jensen said brightly, and now he had to shout a little to be heard over the noise of the moving train. This was going to get unpleasant in a minute or two. “So, what do we need to know, Avery?”
Avery cocked his head, very slowly, to the side. There was a bad feeling growing in the pit of Jensen’s stomach. “I’m dead either way,” he said, distant.
“Avery?” Jensen said slowly.
The gun jumped up again, but not to point at Jensen—there was only a split second between the movement and Jensen realizing what was about to happen, and it wasn’t enough. Jensen lunged forward just as Avery put the barrel against the side of his own head and pulled the trigger.
“Shit!” Jensen said. His hand closed on empty air as Avery’s body toppled over the side of the train.
* * *
“That was a complete waste of time,” Clay said.
* * *
Actually, Clay had a lot more to say about it, as did Pooch. Aisha didn’t say so much as shout—“What the fuck are you people doing? You killed our lead—” and Jensen had briefly lost his mind and shouted back, and then everything had gone sort of loud and shout-y for a while.
Normally, this would be fine—the Losers were not known for their stability and lack of confrontation—but Aisha had pulled a knife and grabbed him by the front of the shirt, and Jensen had gone for the gun he didn’t actually have on him—again—and Jensen was pretty sure of his fighting skills but also pretty sure he was going to lose at least a finger or two if it came down to that.
The click of a gun being cocked had silenced everyone and sent Aisha a step back, hands held out in a conciliatory gesture.
“Put it away,” Cougar said quietly, and Aisha quickly complied. When Cougar had a gun in his hand and that particular look in his eyes—all still and calm and blanked-out—then people tended to obey. Here and now, it was actually making Jensen feel a little warm and fuzzy inside. In a weird and fucked up way, it was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for him.
“Cougar,” Clay said on a sigh. “Put the gun down.”
Cougar didn’t move.
Clay sighed again, but his eyes went sharp, and that meant business. “Cougar.”
Cougar gave Clay a look that said clearly he was doing it because he wanted to, not because Clay had told him to, and then did as Clay asked.
“Thank you,” Clay said. “Everyone take a breather and go cool off. We’ll do this when nobody feels like getting bitchy and pulling a weapon. Jesus, it’s like trying to herd cats.”
* * *
Before Roque, something like this would have meant a fight, mostly verbal, a little physical, quick and dirty and an easy way to let off steam. Jensen still thought that it had done them good—living in one another’s pockets like they did, sometimes it was better to just let it out.
It sucked that Roque had taken that away from them. Even the little squabbles felt bigger when there was that little niggling seed of doubt in the back of your mind: when would you push too far? When would someone decide enough was enough?
The L.A. docks had been the kind of nightmare that Jensen wished he could wake up from. The moment Clay had tossed Roque’s name at them across the asphalt like some kind of dirty word, Jensen had gone quietly, blissfully numb. He was pushed and shoved to his knees, and then it was just a matter of waiting for the bullet—waiting, and knowing Roque was responsible. Roque had—
Pooch had been shot in the legs, and he had flinched—out of all of them, Pooch was supposed to be the safe one, damn it. Cougar was shouting, fighting, and Jensen thought maybe he should be, too, not least because if Cougar had to die, he didn’t want to have to watch it happen. But he was stuck in that blank disbelief—Roque had betrayed them. Roque might as well have been the one about to pull the trigger. Roque, who had lived and fought with them, who had teased and threatened and who had always, always had their backs—Roque had saved their asses a hundred times just to hand them over to be shot in the back of the head. It was incomprehensible. It was inconceivable.
And then Cougar had started to laugh, and Aisha had shown up with a rocket launcher, and the world made a sort of sense again, when you looked at it with Loser-logic—betrayed, yes, and left for dead, but somehow they were still kicking, and that meant they could come back with a vengeance. Give them a little bit of rope, and the Losers would find a way to hang you with it.
Still, Jensen was waiting for the day when the betrayal was a little more effective and the death a little more permanent, always listening to that voice in the back of his mind whispering that someday his luck had to run out. One day, it was possible—even probable—that someone he loved would pull the trigger. The others probably knew the same.
So maybe they all stepped a little more cautiously around each other. Maybe they slept with one eye open a little more often, and maybe they all had some serious trust issues.
But really, could anyone blame them?
* * *
In the end, they went to New Mexico, which had been the original plan anyway, okay, Aisha? Aisha didn’t look happy about it, but she never seemed to be happy with any of their plans, and besides, she didn’t have to be happy, she just had to show up and look terrifying in the background with some visible weapons while Clay tried to sell some guns. Well—while Clay tried to sell some stolen guns to the men they had stolen them from. But since those guns had been stolen in the first place, it almost wasn’t a crime at all, in the grand scheme of things, and selling them back almost made them legal again, in a roundabout sort of way.
“Jensen, shut up,” Cougar said, mild, and Jensen closed his mouth so abruptly his teeth clacked together, sucked in a deep breath, and relaxed.
They were on surveillance duty on top of a hill just outside the arms dealers’ compound, and Jensen hated outdoor surveillance. Watching Cougar watch Clay and Aisha wasn’t his idea of a good time, no matter how much he wished he could appreciate the opportunity to look and look at Cougar without anyone finding it weird or creepy. The fact that he wanted to enjoy it was creepy and the whole reason he wasn’t going to let himself do it, and that left him feeling a little guilty on top of feeling twitchy and just plain bored. It was a disastrous combination for his motor mouth, and Cougar knew it, even if he didn’t entirely understand the meaning of it.
“Right, shutting up,” he said, and Cougar shot him a quick grin before turning back to watch Clay and Aisha through his scope.
“Right this way, Mr. and Mrs. Wayne,” Jensen heard over the earpiece, and watched Cougar watch Clay and Aisha go into the main office, located on the top floor of the large, central building.
“I cannot believe Clay let you keep those names,” Pooch murmured.
Jensen smirked, gleeful as a kid on Halloween night—bags and bags full of candy. “He said it was more effort than it was worth to change them,” he reported. “I think he’s a closet comic book fan. Do you think he’s wearing his Batman boxers right now?”
Without looking away, Cougar reached over and kicked Jensen on the side of the shin.
“Oops,” Jensen said. “Sorry, Cougs. Shutting up.”
Another kick, this one just the lightest tap, was Cougar’s way of showing affection and amusement.
Focus, Jensen told himself sternly, before the warm and fuzzy feelings could get too distracting. It was a common problem around Cougar. To keep himself on track, he amused himself by looking around the compound, taking it all in.
It was an ugly mass of concrete squatting in stark grey contrast to the reddish-brown open spaces of the landscape. There was a fence running around the outside, topped in barbed wire and—Jensen thought—electrified, which was overkill for a place so far off the beaten track that one would be more likely to encounter a pack of dingoes than another human being. The buildings themselves were small, but numerous—something like eight buildings of varying heights buzzing with low-level activity. Clay and Aisha’s voices were quiet background noise in his ear, something he could mostly tune out and still hear enough to get ready if anyone used one of their panic words.
Jensen was a little disappointed that Clay had refused to make his code word “vengeance,” but he supposed it was difficult to work into a casual conversation.
At last, the meeting wrapped up and Clay and Aisha slipped away. When they made it back to the little sniper nest on the top of the hill, Pooch in tow, they looked concerned.
“We good to go, boss?” Jensen said, aiming for chipper and falling somewhere closer to nervous. While Clay’s decision-making skills were sometimes subpar, his instincts were usually spot-on, and Clay looked like something was bothering him.
Aisha answered for him. “We set up an exchange for tomorrow night,” she said. “The guns for enough money to run a small country. It should be enough to get us inside.”
“Right,” Clay said, with that look on his face that was screaming it might be nothing, but it’s probably something. Still, he was gaining confidence as he spoke, so whatever had spooked him couldn’t have been too bad. Of course, it was also possible that he and Aisha had been discussing personal issues, and Jensen had heard enough about Clay’s personal issues to last a lifetime. He wasn’t going to ask. “Tonight, we’ll do a little advance recon.”
Pooch grinned. “I love me some breaking and entering.”
“Don’t we all,” Clay said, perfectly dry. “And tomorrow, we’ll go through with the actual theft. Jensen, you get to a computer and get us whatever you can while Aisha and I go through with the deal. Pooch can cover you, and Cougar can cover him from out here.”
“Wait,” Jensen said, surprised. “We’re actually giving them the guns?”
Pooch looked confused, too. Even Cougar was shooting Clay an incredulous look from under the brim of his hat, and Aisha had on her stoically blank face, which could either mean that she hated the idea or that she was on board with it. Possibly both at the same time—Aisha was special that way.
“Well, I think they might notice if we tried to sell them paintball guns instead,” Clay said, exasperated. “I know we’re not trying to fund domestic terrorism, boys. But we need them to get us in the door. Besides, these are weapons they’d have anyway if we hadn’t interfered.”
“I’m not comfortable with that, Clay,” Pooch said, warning. “There’s a lot about this country that’s fucked up, but my family still lives in it. Hell, we live in it. I don’t need a bunch of terrorists to start shooting the place up.” By the end of his speech, he was practically wagging a finger in Clay’s face.
Clay raised both hands and took a step back. “If we get what we need, then we can go back in and pick them up again. Simple.”
“It’s never that simple,” Cougar said, still glowering.
Jensen thought it through a little more. “We could remove the firing pins,” he pointed out. “It won’t stop them, but it’ll definitely keep them occupied for a while, and that’ll give us the time to figure out how to steal them back. And it’s not like we need to maintain our cover—even if this works, we aren’t going to be able to keep selling to them, so we’ll be burning these identities anyway.”
Clay looked thoughtful. Pooch and Aisha looked—surprised, like the idea hadn’t occurred to them, or maybe like they hadn’t expected it to come from Jensen, which was a little insulting. Cougar looked mostly like he always did, which was to say mostly inscrutable.
“That’s not a bad idea, Jensen,” Clay said, and brought a hand up to rub at his chin. “We’ll need to leave a couple functional for a demonstration, but we can easily make the rest of them useless.”
Cougar nodded decisively. “Better,” he said, and the look he shot Jensen was, for lack of a better word, grateful.
“This will work,” Aisha said.
Jensen groaned and put his head in his hands. “Oh, fuck, here we go,” he said. “Now you’ve jinxed it.”
Cougar patted his shoulder sympathetically.
* * *
That night, the compound was dark and deserted, which was a red flag as far as Jensen was concerned. In his experience, places like this were heavily guarded, and those guards were even more heavily armed. The others didn’t like it either, Jensen could tell; Cougar was too still, Pooch was too twitchy, and Aisha was fiddling with a gun she had pulled out of nowhere—where did she even keep them all? There were not nearly enough pockets and everything was skintight—and even Clay had actually said something along the lines of “I don’t like this,” which made it serious business because Clay had all the self-preservation skills of a deer in the headlights.
Jensen didn’t want to think about what that said about them, the deer who strolled merrily out into the street behind him. It certainly wasn’t a flattering comparison.
But follow along merrily they did, and that was why Jensen was wandering through a deserted compound in the middle of the night, wondering where this particular arms dealer was keeping his armaments. This was a legitimate question, because there was nothing in this particular building except dust and possibly some mice. Something wasn’t right—it should have been massively difficult to get into any one building, let alone four at once, which was the whole reason the team had planned on doing a little recon. And then there was the weirdness that was the sheer emptiness of the place. He hoped the others were having more luck in the other buildings, because he was finding jack.
Jensen relayed this fact over the comms, adding, “This feels like spooky horror movie shit, Clay. Something is about to scream or jump out and try to kill me, I just know it. The quirky comedic-relief sidekick always dies in those movies.”
Aisha sounded irritated but her heart wasn’t really in it, like she was starting to get a little frustrated herself. “Why don’t you shut up and do your job, Jensen?” she said.
Jensen glowered at the wall, because Aisha wasn’t there for him to glower at in person. Actually, if she had been there in person, he wouldn’t glower at all. He wasn’t ashamed to admit that Aisha terrified him. “Lady, you are so not the boss of me.”
“Shut up and do your job, Jensen,” Clay said.
“Yes, sir, bossman.”
Jensen cleared his building—a little outbuilding on the edge of the compound—long before anyone else cleared theirs, and had the dubious honor of being the first to enter the main building, where hopefully he would find some computers to play with—Clay had expected the actual theft to go down later, during the arms deal, but if there was no one guarding the place…
He pushed the main door open easily, both surprised and really not surprised to find it unlocked, and took the place in at a glance. The first floor was very concrete-chic, but disappointingly empty. “Okay, Clay, something is definitely wrong with this picture. There is nothing here, and I mean nothing. No security, no movement, no people, no stuff. Are we really in the right place, is what I’m saying, because this is basically a ghost town.”
“Cougar, do you have anything?” Clay said.
From up the hill a ways, watching the compound through his scope, Cougar huffed out a breath. “Nada,” he said.
Clay sounded frustrated. “They must have cleared out this afternoon,” he said, practically a growl over the comms. “Something tipped them off, and they decided to just move shop. Damn.”
Jensen entered the stairwell and took the stairs up to the second floor as Pooch spoke up. “Maybe they left something behind?” Even Pooch didn’t sound convinced.
Clay blew out a breath. “Keep checking, just to be sure,” he said. “Guys like this are usually pretty thorough, but you never know.”
Thorough wasn’t a strong enough word. The second floor of Jensen’s building had literally been stripped bare—the carpets, the lights, and all the walls except for the support columns had been removed. He wrinkled his nose—it smelled like stale gasoline. “I think I see some cigarette butts, maybe a cockroach or two,” he said flatly, moving back and forth across the open expanse of the floor to try to find something that might have been missed. “Maybe we can capture them, keep them as pets. It’ll be like a souvenir, so we can always remember the time we went on a wild goose chase in New Mexico. Fun times.”
“You boys have been bugging me for time off recently,” Clay pointed out, deceptively mild. “Look, no one is shooting at us! Consider this a working vacation.”
Jensen could practically hear Pooch’s pout. “Man, we got better leave in the army,” he mumbled. Nobody had anything to say to that, mostly because it was true.
Jensen finished his sweep, went back to the stairwell, and took the stairs up to the third and final floor. These things went so much faster when there was literally nothing to see. “I’m about done here,” he said, reaching the third floor landing. “After this, I vote we take real vacations. I hear the Bahamas are nice this time of year.”
“No one is going to the Bahamas,” Aisha hissed.
The door to the third floor cracked open, and then jammed in the frame. “Wow, okay, I knew you hated fun and happiness but I didn’t realize you had some kind of personal vendetta against the Caribbean,” Jensen said, distracted, trying to jiggle the door loose. “Shit, do all arms dealers have a code of honor forbidding home maintenance?” He finally gave up and rammed his shoulder into the door, propelling it open.
He immediately wished he hadn’t. Aisha and Clay were talking in his ear, but Jensen ignored them; he had bigger problems. “Oh, fuck a duck,” he said. “Everybody clear out, get the fuck away from the buildings! We’ve got a problem, guys,” he shouted, checking the windows—nope, way too high to jump. Going to have to take the stairs.
“What the fuck, Jensen?” Clay snapped, but Jensen could hear him and the others starting to move over the comms, so they were at least taking him seriously.
“I’ve got a room full of explosives wired to the gas line, and the place stinks of gasoline,” he said, flinging himself out the door and taking the stairs two and three steps at a time. “And I just—er, something just triggered the countdown. We’ve got a minute, tops.”
Clay swore explosively—heh, explosives—and Jensen slammed into the wall on the second floor landing, turned, pushed off, kept running down.
Fuck, there were a lot of stairs.
“Jensen, everyone else is outside,” Cougar said, low in his ear. “Move faster.”
“Fuck you, I had to take the stairs!” he snapped, panting, and finally skidded to a halt. He grabbed the door handle, turned, and yanked—nothing. “Shit!” The handle rattled in his hand, but the door didn’t open. It had locked behind him. “Fuck!” The door and frame were metal-lined; he wouldn’t be able to shoot his way out in time.
“Window!” Cougar snapped, and Jensen didn’t even stop to think how he knew there was a tiny rectangular pane, just covered his eyes and shot out the glass. His arm fit through, barely, and he twisted so he could reach the handle. Miracle of miracles, it opened—he fell through the door, untwisted his arm, and started running again.
He was just starting to think he was going to make it—the door was just a couple yards away—when there was a muffled bang, a rush of air like a great inhaled breath.
“Cougar,” he bit out, as good a last word as anything.
Then there was a roar like a freight train, and the whole world shook itself to pieces. The last thing he heard was Cougar’s voice shouting in his ear.
* * *
When Jensen was a kid, he liked to spend time in the pool at the YMCA downtown.
He didn’t swim, not really. He climbed in to the deepest part of the pool and dropped down, breathing out and out and out until he could press himself against the concrete bottom, none of that pesky buoyant oxygen left to drag him back up to the surface. It was still and quiet under all that water, muffling the splashing and the shrieks of the other kids, and he stayed down there until his lungs started to scream at him for air—and then a moment longer, just to feel the way his heartbeat went slow and heavy, like a bass drum through his whole body.
He could hold his breath for about a minute and a half at a time by the time he was fourteen, and at fifteen, he had upped that to two and a half. He found that he liked the way it felt, at first, the way his brain would always go quiet, nothing but him and his pounding heart, the pressure in his ears. He even liked the way it felt later, when he was pushing the edges of his limits and starting to see his already-blurry vision blacking out around the edges, until at last he would push up hard off the bottom of the pool and breach the surface.
The lifeguards and the chaperoning mothers and even his sister were concerned about it—afraid that he would drown himself, maybe, or that he wouldn’t mind if he did. Fifteen-year old Jensen said a lot of things, but when it came down to it, he had trouble explaining the things worth explaining, and he had no words for this. It was just—in that last second before he reached his limits, down at the bottom of the pool, when he felt that involuntary flutter of his chest—his throat working, pushing him to inhale, to draw in air that just wasn’t there—he watched his stupid, traitorous body try to drown him to save his life, and knew the only reason it still bothered was because he came up and breathed in air instead of water, every time.
It didn’t matter much, anymore—Jensen wasn’t a SEAL and holding your breath for a ridiculously long time was more of a party trick than a useful skill for a tech in the Army, even when you were in a unit like the Losers. It was just a reminder, in a way, something he kept in the back of his mind—the human body wanted to live more than anything, more than logic or reason—wanted life badly enough to drown for it.
Even fifteen year olds could appreciate the irony in that.
* * *
Jensen had been shot, stabbed, beaten, tortured, and even—once—lit on fire, so he felt that he was intimately acquainted with the varied ways that a person could potentially die. He hadn’t particularly enjoyed any of them.
So when it came down to it, being buried alive wasn’t the worst. It wasn’t the best, either; personally, Jensen was still holding out hope for old age, in his sleep, even though as the years passed he became more and more aware of just how unlikely it would be. But buried alive certainly wasn’t the worst.
It was a small comfort.
He came to with a start, coughing out cement dust, and once he had pushed past the confusion and the ringing in his ears, he realized that he hadn’t made it far enough away from the explosion, and that the rubble had sealed him in.
“Oh,” he said. “Oh, this is bad.”
An angled chunk of debris had pinned his left arm and leg in place while simultaneously protecting his head and chest from the worst of the fallout, which was both reassuring and concerning—he was well and truly trapped, and his whole left side had gone worryingly numb, but at least the wreckage felt pretty stable. At least he wasn’t going to be slowly crushed to death, like the old executioners had done for so-called witches. It had been called death by pressing, and it was awful, and excruciatingly painful, and—and it wasn’t happening to him, so he thought he should probably stop thinking about it.
It was already pretty warm in his little bubble of rubble—heh, rhymes—which meant that there was probably a finite amount of oxygen trapped with him. He couldn’t quite stop his mind from running through scenario after scenario, calculating the available space—not much—and his body size and oxygen intake—significant—and coming up with the inevitable conclusion—he was going to suffocate any time now, whether in a few minutes or in a few hours, and there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it. He could hardly move, and what little he could move just made him hurt—everything hurt, damn—and it was probably better to sit still and not bring everything crashing down on his head.
Speaking of his head—there was something wrong with it. Part of it was lightheadedness, he was sure, but a larger part was the hit he had taken at some point during the explosion, those seconds-hours-minutes that he had lost as everything fell to pieces. He reached up as well as he could in the cramped space, and hissed when his hand made contact. It seemed that he had lost his earpiece and gained a gash the length of his palm on his forehead, seeping blood into his eyes.
It wasn’t like there was anything to see, anyway. It was black as pitch and totally silent.
His throat mic was still attached, and possibly even still functioning, although it was hard to tell, and impossible to know if any of the team had survived to listen to him even if it was. Violently, he quashed that thought—Cougar had been well away, had said the others were getting clear—there was no need to make himself panic, not least because he would only use up his limited oxygen faster if he started to hyperventilate. If—when—the others went digging for him, he would need every minute of oxygen. Being buried alive sucked, but not as much as it would suck to die just moments before his team could reach him.
He talked at first—explaining his situation to the team, if they were listening, before ranting at the goddamn piece of shit who had rigged the building to explode, and finally just whispering to himself, nonsensical tangents and half-gibberish—until the words had felt like too much for the cramped space and he fell silent, halfway through a sentence. Talking would only waste air, he rationalized, and it wasn’t like he was getting any sort of response.
So instead he just breathed, through an ache that suggested that he had bruised his ribs—just bruised, please, not cracked or broken. He really didn’t want to check, although logic and the rules of blast injuries were leaning more towards the latter. Slow, careful breaths—not deep, because that would waste air and probably hurt even more, if that were possible, but not shallow, either, because that would lead him straight back to hyperventilation and the whole air-wasting thing he was trying to avoid. Even, rhythmic breaths, the kind you breathed when you were falling asleep on a beach somewhere, not slowly running out of air in the remnants of a CIA-funded arms dealer’s compound in New Mexico. If he held perfectly still and ignored his head and his chest and the whole left side of his body, he could almost pretend the warm, muggy thickness of the air was just tropical weather, that any second there would be a breeze to bring a breath of fresh air—
Fresh air. It was funny, because he was going to die. “Heh,” he mumbled, almost a cough as he tried to clear his throat. The cement dust seemed to have settled in a heavy mass somewhere in the back of his throat, and it wasn’t making the whole breathing thing any easier. “Freudian slip.”
How long had it been? Some time, certainly, though it wasn’t like he was wearing a watch and his phone had been lost somewhere along the line, disappeared the same way as his earpiece and his gun. Twenty minutes? Thirty? Maybe even a full hour? He had thought about counting his breaths, but that had felt too much like rationing them, like watching his death approach with depressing inevitability as he marked time with the very thing that was going to kill him.
At least it wouldn’t hurt. He would slip into a coma before it got to the worst of it, that moment where his throat fluttered and his chest heaved for oxygen that wasn’t coming, where he would have pushed off the bottom of the pool and fought for the surface if only he had been swimming. It would be like going to sleep, maybe—easy. Painless.
He was already tired—every inch of him too heavy to move, even if he had been free enough to move in the first place.
It wouldn’t be like drowning, where you breathed in water instead of air and every inch of you fought it, burned with it, knew it was killing you. No, suffocating had the same irony that had appealed to him when he had held his breath in the pool—stupid body, stupid lungs, stupid everything doing exactly what it was meant to do, and dying anyway. God, he was going to die, he was going to die alone here in the dark—
He didn’t want to think about it anymore.
At some point, he started to drift—sparklers trailed across the blackness that was his vision, and he made himself dizzy trying to follow them. He wasn’t pinned down; he was floating, heavy and light at the same time, and everything around him was warm and muffled-soft, like a blanket.
He wanted to sleep, but he knew he had to—something. There had to be something he was supposed to do, right? He had been trained to survive in all kinds of situations, trained by the Army, by Clay and the Losers—by Cougar, who made him remember his gun, who watched his back, who kept him alive. So he had to—he had to stay awake, he had to—breathe, and wait, and—and—Cougar was going to be so angry if he—
Fuck it, Jensen thought, or maybe said, he couldn’t tell any more—woozy, head spinning with it—sorry, Cougar. He went to sleep.
* * *
The world was shaking around him, and he shook with it, too far gone to be more than vaguely aware that something was happening.
It didn’t hurt—nothing did. He felt nothing at all.
Something crunched and ground together as it was dragged away from him, and the weight he hadn’t realized was pressing down on him lifted away. And then something came slithering towards him, a light-weight, gravelly shifting, and he felt that, felt the impact of falling rocks and debris without any accompanying pain.
There was a voice, contact—fingers pressed to the pulse point in his jaw, clearing away the dust and grime from his nose and mouth, and then hands started tapping at his face, insistent, grabbing at his shoulders, moving across his arms and legs and ribs to check for damage.
“—sen, breathe. Jensen. Jake. Respire, por favor—damn—”
It was the sound that shocked him more than the impact, the startling crack of skin on skin as something smacked him in the face. He jolted back to himself, lungs sucking in air so cold it hurt, made him cough it back out again as his whole body went hot and cold all over. Pins and needles followed immediately after, and then, a second later, pain—his chest, his head, all down his left side.
His next breath caught in his throat, choking him, and the hand clenched in the fabric of his shirt over his heart pressed down hard enough to hurt—he hadn’t even realized it was there. “Don’t you dare,” a voice growled—and Jensen knew that voice, was obeying even before he fully understood how or who or why. He pulled in one labored breath, and then another, ignored the burning in his lungs and just breathed through it until it became bearable, sucking in great whooping breaths that sent stabbing pains through his chest but lightened that indefinable, heavy lethargy that had settled over him.
The heartbeat pounding against the inside of his skull sped up, found a slightly more normal rhythm, and then moved faster still, as the numbness faded and shock started to set in. He was already shivering.
It was a little depressing that Jensen was familiar enough with shock to diagnose himself.
Speaking seemed impossibly difficult, so he cracked his eyes open as best he could through a layer of dried blood and squinted at the crazed, spider-webbing cracks in his lenses. Half propped-up as he was, he could make out a silhouette, indistinct and hard to look at with the way the late afternoon light was stabbing his eyes, crouched on his right side with one hand on Jensen’s chest and the other holding a bloody wad of cloth to Jensen’s left leg, which seemed to be bleeding. A lot.
Huh. He hadn’t even noticed that, though the pain was definitely there, roaring into the forefront of his mind now that he had acknowledged it. His breathing caught again, and again the hand over his heart tightened on his shirt, like it could keep him alive through sheer force of will.
Jensen blinked, and his vision cleared a little. His eyes traveled up, away from the hands and towards the face. The hat was missing, and the light hurt his head, but Jensen would have had to be more than half blind and most of the way dead before he would fail to recognize Cougar, who was looking over his shoulder and muttering fiercely in Spanish. It was interspersed randomly with English curses and invectives, telling Clay and Pooch to hurry, which was confusing at first—Jensen couldn’t see them at all—until he realized that they weren’t actually there, that everyone else would have earpieces.
But—Cougar. Cougar was there, Cougar was okay. Jensen felt dirt in the lines of his face when he smiled, dizzy with relief and fresh oxygen.
Cougar still hadn’t noticed that Jensen was awake. His first attempt to speak rattled and caught in his chest, a bitten-off groan choked with dust, but Cougar heard it, and the man’s head snapped around to look at him immediately. “Cougs,” he tried again, and this time it sounded almost like an actual word. Jensen was proud of himself, even though the sound felt like it had been torn straight from his vocal cords. Ouch.
Cougar, though, Cougar made a noise like he’d been gutted. “He’s awake,” he said into his mic, and let go of Jensen’s shirt—the spot where his hand had been immediately felt cold—leaning forward just enough that he was shading Jensen’s eyes from the weak light. Yeah, Cougar was definitely Jensen’s favorite.
Speaking was more painful than breathing, which was saying something, so Jensen kept it short. “How…?” he managed.
Cougar, bless his monosyllabic heart, knew what he meant. “Your GPS,” he said.
Jensen had thought that his earpiece was lost, but if Cougar had managed to track the GPS signal, maybe it just wasn’t working. He couldn’t make his arm move to check. “Pooch. Clay?”
“Fine.” Cougar looked skittish, though, and though he kept one hand clamped on the Jensen’s bleeding leg—and that was really starting to hurt, by the way, fucking ow—his eyes were shifty. His free hand kept trying to drift back to Jensen’s chest before he jerked it away, like he just couldn’t help himself. On a normal person, it would have translated as unease. On Cougar, who had long since trained himself out of extraneous movement, it might as well have been jumping up and down, waving bright red flags and screaming, “Something is very, very wrong here!”
Jensen tried to work up the energy to shift his right arm, but it turned out to be a doomed attempt—even heaving air in and out of his lungs was a monumental effort around what felt like a band across his chest, and he was starting to think the rubble hadn’t protected him from injury as well as he had thought. He settled for twitching the fingers on his right hand where they brushed against Cougar’s leg, a little flutter of contact. Cougar’s eyes flickered to Jensen’s hand and then to his face, and finally steadied there.
“What,” he started to say, now that he had Cougar’s attention, only to cut himself off when he started to cough and couldn’t stop. He wheezed in a breath when he could and felt something shift, grind painfully in his chest, and—shit. Was that blood? Could he taste blood? Fuck.
Cougar could see it—Jensen could tell by the way his eyes went a little wild. His free hand flashed out and grabbed Jensen’s shoulder, trying to help him find a position where he could breathe, but that made the hand clamped down on his left leg shift a little, and suddenly everything went shrieking-static-white, mind blanking out because oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck that hurt—
Everything else was just flashes—Clay, Pooch, a woman? Where was—no, Roque wouldn’t be there, and the woman was Aisha, Aisha. Voices, movement—tying something tight very tight too tight around his bleeding leg—a momentary weightlessness, and he hoped to everything and anything that he wasn’t screaming, but he was pretty sure that he was, or trying to, and that hurt, too—tasting blood—something rattling underneath him, an engine on a crappy road—
Cougar was there, too, sometimes farther away, sometimes pressed up so close behind him he could feel Cougar’s body heat like a line of fire. At times it felt like Cougar was the only warm and stable thing in the world, a pair of steady arms propping him up so that he could struggle through another breath.
Cougar’s voice was always there in his ear whenever he surfaced long enough to hear it, and not all of it made sense—either it was Spanish or Jensen just couldn’t make the sounds form words—but it was there, and it was more words than Cougar had given him at once in an entire lifetime, so Jensen sucked in lungful after bloody-tasting lungful of air and listened.
Besides, some of it did almost make sense, like:
“Don’t you dare fucking die,” and
“Please, God, not him,” and
“Jake, Jake, fuck, lo siento—please, Jake, please, stop moving, you’re making it worse—lo siento, lo siento—”
That last one was especially confusing, because he didn’t know what Cougar was apologizing for. If Cougar could have made the pain stop, he would have, and Jensen knew that, but Jensen also couldn’t find the words to tell him so. Cougar would do anything for him; it was just that simple. It was one of the reasons why Jensen loved him so much—that, at least, was easy and uncomplicated and only hurt a little, nothing like the way his whole body seemed to be trying to catch fire.
He wondered, distantly, what that high-pitched, wounded-animal sound was and why it wouldn’t leave him alone—oh. That was him. He didn’t have the energy to be embarrassed and he couldn’t quite figure out how to make it stop—maybe eventually it would stop on its own.
He figured no one would blame him if he went away, just for a little while.
* * *
“If you stop breathing again, I will kill you myself.”
His chest hurt. Everything else was distant and numb, almost too far away to feel at all. He couldn’t remember where he was, or how he had gotten there. He breathed.
* * *
The next time he came to he was on a ventilator, fighting around the tube shoved down his throat. He hated being intubated, and he especially hated that oxygen had been giving him so much trouble recently—so the best thing to do was ignore the obnoxious screeching of machines and nurses alike, and go away again.
* * *
The area directly above him was very white and very bright and looked a little like the fluffy underside of a cloud.
If he was dead, and this was the afterlife, Jensen was going to be very disappointed by just how cliché it all was, and maybe have a few stern words with whoever was running the place about taking too much inspiration from movies and television. If he wasn’t dead, then wherever he was—a hospital?—seemed to have used clouds for a roof, and after a moment’s reflection he wasn’t sure which option was the least likely. He hummed a little, confused, and felt the sound buzz noiselessly in his dry throat for a few seconds before it caught.
He blinked, blinked again, and watched the clouds solidify into a blurry, white-painted ceiling, complete with fluorescent lights, which made far more sense. A hospital, then. Okay, great. Not dead! He could handle that.
A new shape leaned over him, blocking out some of the light, which had been starting to hurt his eyes a little. The blur slid his glasses onto his face—right, glasses, he needed those, even if they were his cheap back-up pair—and most of the blur went out of the world, enough that Cougar’s face slid into focus.
Cougar looked like he hadn’t slept or shaved for a week and a half, maybe more—and Jensen wasn’t sure how or when, exactly, he had learned to tell time by Cougar’s facial hair, but it was starting to feel ridiculous. He had his hat back, even though Jensen wasn’t sure why he had thought it had been lost in the first place, and after a few more blinks Jensen could see that his eyes looked—looked blank, like he had turned everything off and gone to that scary sniper place where he could walk and talk and not feel a single thing.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Jensen said, or tried to say. What actually came out was more like “Wha—?” followed by a scary sort of wheezing sound. He was starting to wonder just how drugged up he really was.
Cougar’s face went even blanker. Jensen hadn’t thought it possible.
Still, it got him ice chips to suck on—water, running gloriously cool down his throat—and he took a minute to watch Cougar watching him, hovering with that dead-eyed stare. The cup of ice chips in Cougar’s hand looked a bit incongruous when compared to the look on his face, which Jensen usually associated with explosions and firefights.
This called for a serious response.
Rather than try to speak again, Jensen narrowed his eyes and stared Cougar down, hoping that his face conveyed just what do you think you’re doing, mister and not heavily drugged, half-blind chipmunk, which was what he sort of felt like. He stared, and Cougar stared back at him, until his vision went a little wavy around the edges and he remembered to blink. Right—don’t get into staring contests with the sniper. Duh.
He huffed out a laugh, which actually hurt, in a distant and foggy way, and tried to push himself upright to take a look at himself and figure out what was wrong. He had hardly started to move before Cougar was right there in his face, keeping him down with a single hand to his shoulder.
Oookay. “Hi?” Jensen managed, and look, words!
“Don’t move,” Cougar bit out, and he sounded angry.
Jensen thought that was a little unfair, considering that Jensen was the one in the hospital, drugged to the gills and not entirely certain how he had gotten there. His mind called up a memory of loud noises and blinding light, touched on a lot of pain, and immediately went skittering away. Nope, nuh-uh, not going to think about that, no thanks.
Cougar was still standing almost too close, just watching, as if waiting for Jensen to try to make a break for it. Cougar had—Cougar had found him, Jensen sort of remembered that. Cougar had—wait a minute. He cleared his throat again. “Hey, Cougar,” Jensen said, sounding a little raspy and a lot drunk—or drugged, to be precise—but clear enough. “Did you slap me?”
Cougar’s whole body twitched. Fascinated, Jensen watched as his face contorted and then smoothed over again, the sniper mask—that awful blankness—dropping away. Jensen wasn’t nearly alert enough to read all the emotions that flickered across his face—he caught brief snatches of anger, fear, and guilt—but at last he settled on relief.
And then Cougar started to laugh, very quietly. It was horrible, choking laughter, almost painful to hear, and it just kept going, even as Cougar held on tighter to Jensen’s shoulder, even as he dropped into a seat and curled down so he could put his head in his free hand and then plant his elbow on the bed. His hat hid his face, but Jensen could feel the hand on his shoulder shaking.
It was seriously freaking Jensen out. “Cougs, man, seriously freaking me out,” he mumbled, and managed to turn his head enough to get a better look at him. “What—”
“You died,” Cougar said, muffled behind his hat and his hand, and Jensen had to blink a few times and work his way through processing that, because he had been mostly sure that he was not, in fact, dead. He was pretty sure he would have noticed if he was.
“Don’t feel very dead.”
Cougar had apparently used up his quota of words for the day, because he didn’t say anything else, but the hand on Jensen’s shoulder tightened to the point of pain. The laughter-that-wasn’t had finally stopped, but Cougar didn’t move, or look up at him.
Jensen blinked, stared, and blinked again. A minute ticked by, treacly and slow. His eyelids were getting heavier and heavier, and it wasn’t helping him work through his confusion. “Cougs?” he said, and worked up enough energy to move his arm, to nudge the side of Cougar’s elbow with his, even though it felt like he was moving through mud.
Cougar finally straightened up, his hand sliding away from Jensen’s shoulder. He looked up and met Jensen’s eyes, and now he looked like Cougar should—calm and watchful as he resettled his hat on his head and positioned himself where he could see both Jensen and the door. “Sleep,” he said, and Jensen heard both it’s okay and I’ll keep watch in that one word.
He wanted to argue, but he was already gone.
* * *
He woke up a few more times in the hospital, drugged to the gills. Sometimes he was just confused, but once he was so panicked that the monitors started to screech out warnings and Cougar had to hold him down and tell him who and where he was before he could try to hurt someone or run away.
The drugs lightened after that.
Once he was a little more aware, he could take stock of his injuries. Every inch of him was a mass of black and blue bruises fading to green and brown, except for the chunk of his leg that had been torn open by a piece of exposed rebar. That had gotten him some minor surgery and a blood transfusion, along with antibiotics and a tetanus booster—he had been due for an update on that, anyway. There was a cut on his head that had needed a stitch or two, along with various scrapes and cuts across the rest of him.
And then there were his ribs. He had bruised some and broken the rest, which had resulted in a punctured lung. He hadn’t been aware for the chest tube or most of the time on the ventilator, which he could distantly appreciate—but only because his heart had stopped twice after his arrival at the hospital and once just before, which mostly explained the intense crazy-eyes Cougar was sporting from his permanent position in the chair by his bed. He apparently hadn’t regained consciousness for days even after coming off the ventilator, which explained the rest.
Eventually, he was released—and by released, he meant that Cougar spirited him away in the middle of the night, before anyone could start to ask questions that they really weren’t able to answer.
* * *
The new safe house felt too big and too quiet without Pooch, Clay, or Aisha, but the others had scattered—only after Cougar had insisted, which was kind of nice—in order to draw Max’s attention elsewhere once it became clear that Jensen wouldn’t be waking up right away. Cougar had stayed with him, which wasn’t a surprise, and once they were back at the safe house, Cougar kept him stocked in food and painkillers and made sure he wasn’t about to kill himself by accident.
It was all pretty standard for the Losers at this point, except for the part where Cougar was avoiding him.
It was only for a certain value of “avoiding,” of course, because Cougar was always there in a heartbeat if Jensen so much as sneezed—he hated broken ribs more than anything, because fuck that hurt—but otherwise he was constantly just out of sight, too far for Jensen to try to start a conversation.
It got worse when his leg healed up enough for him to start walking on it again, because now that he was mobile Cougar had to disappear to the far side of the house in order to keep him away. It wasn’t subtle at all, which lost him points, but it was pretty impressive that no matter where Jensen went, Cougar managed to be somewhere else, busy doing something else.
Jensen—as his family, former and current teammates, and almost anyone who had occupied a room at the same time as him could explain—did not take kindly to being ignored.
It was easy enough to keep talking to Cougar anyway, pitching his voice loud enough that it would be heard wherever Cougar happened to be. It wasn’t all that different from their normal conversations, because Cougar never said much anyway, but it was definitely weird that he couldn’t watch Cougar’s face while he talked and read his answers between the lines. Jensen assumed that Cougar would figure out whatever was bothering him and come back when he was ready, or eventually get annoyed enough to tell Jensen what it was he had done wrong so Jensen could agree to never do it again. It had never taken very long in the past.
Except days passed, and Cougar still wouldn’t look at him; if he did glance Jensen’s way, he wouldn’t meet his eyes. He had almost forgotten that Cougar could be just as stubborn as he could.
So he stepped it up. He followed Cougar around the house with single-minded determination, never more than a few steps behind, and let his mouth run, giving voice to everything and anything that passed through his mind, no matter how ridiculous or inane. Cougar never reacted, unless asked a direct question—a grunt for a positive, a shake of the head for a negative—although Jensen did manage to get a few twitches out of him after a few of his more outrageous comments.
Jensen was beginning to feel like one of those annoying little yapping dogs, trailing around after Cougar, always underfoot and begging for attention. It didn’t stop him—he’d had plenty of experience with the feeling in his lifetime—but it had never before been Cougar making him feel that way, and he balanced on the knife’s edge between hurt and confusion.
It was starting to look like they would be stuck in this holding pattern indefinitely—Cougar pulling away and Jensen following after, yanked along like a rubber band—or at least until Jensen healed up enough to rejoin the team, when Clay would inevitably notice the problem and beat their heads together until it was sorted out. It would have taken that beating, Jensen knew it, because the only one capable of outlasting Jensen was Cougar.
In the end, it didn’t take that long. Jensen was buckling down for the long run, working his way up to full steam so he could wear Cougar down, and really wasn’t paying attention to where he was walking. His reflexes were still sluggish from the painkillers, which he maintained was the only reason that he didn’t catch himself when he tripped on a seam in the carpet as he left a room.
Instead, he slammed chest-first into the door jamb, and his ribs screamed in protest.
He stumbled forward another step before his vision started to white out; whatever train of thought he had been following rushed away. He blinked once and was on his knees, his legs giving out underneath him, blinked again and suddenly Cougar was there, following him down, grabbing his shoulders to keep him partially upright. Cougar’s lips were moving but Jensen couldn’t hear anything over the ringing in his ears, the startled pounding of his heartbeat.
Another blink, where the edges of his vision started to go black, before he remembered to breathe again, sharp and fast breaths that didn’t seem to be pulling in any oxygen, and it was almost too easy to start to panic, eyesight tunneling inward and each too-quick breath spearing him in the chest.
Cougar’s lips were moving faster now, nothing that he could hear or understand, and then Cougar grabbed his chin in one hand and dragged Jensen’s hand to his own chest with the other, forcing their eyes to meet before sucking in a deep, exaggerated breath that Jensen could feel under his hand and start to follow.
Jensen was basically hanging onto Cougar for dear life, but Cougar didn’t seem to mind, had put his own hands back on Jensen’s shoulders to keep him from eating the carpet. So Jensen clung to his shirt and the movement of his chest—in, hold, out, pause, in, hold, out—and followed suit, locking eyes with the desperation of a drowning man who could see, just ahead, a bit of solid land.
His heartbeat settled. Breathing became easier, more natural, and the white-hot sharpness in his chest faded back into something bearable. Cougar watched it all, eyes sharp but worry fading. There was a question in his eyes when Jensen finally regained his equilibrium, and Jensen nodded at him—everything still seemed intact—but then Cougar started to—to do something, to stand up or lean back or maybe just pull away. Before he really thought about it, Jensen found himself making an embarrassing sound in the back of his throat and tightening his grip on Cougar’s shirt.
This was the closest they had been in days, kneeling face-to-face on the dingy carpet, and if Cougar walked away and went straight back to not meeting Jensen’s eyes, he was going to lose his goddamn mind.
Cougar stopped moving, but the look on his face was something Jensen didn’t know how to read, or maybe just didn’t want to read. Please, Jensen thought, desperate, please just this once let me—and he curled forward slowly until he was leaning against Cougar, until he couldn’t see Cougar’s expression at all anymore, until his hand was pressed between their chests. From there he could put his head down on Cougar’s shoulder, tuck his face in the junction of Cougar’s shoulder and neck, and just keep breathing.
If this was all he could get, he would take it, and not ask for anything more.
Cougar had gone perfectly still against him, tension in every muscle, and Jensen thought please, just one minute, please again and hoped that this bizarre, distant version of Cougar wouldn’t just decide to shoot him, breathed in the smell of leather and metal that was unique to him and waited for Cougar to pull back, to push him away.
Instead, the tension ran out of him all at once, like someone had pulled the plug on a drain. Then he actually leaned forward, brought his arms up tentatively and made it almost an embrace. One of Cougar’s arms settled gingerly around his back, and the other hand found its way up, cupping the back of his head and threading careful fingers through his hair.
Jensen’s mind stuttered, froze, did a hard reset and reboot. This wasn’t something he had expected, certainly nothing he had planned for, and the confusion left his mind a complete blank—no results found, please try again later.
Slowly, so slowly, because he still wasn’t entirely convinced it wasn’t a trick, Jensen brought his free arm up and curled it around Cougar, completing the circuit. The only thing that changed was that Cougar’s hand tightened in his hair; the arm around his back stayed perfectly steady, careful of Jensen’s ribs.
Someone was shaking. He was pretty sure it wasn’t him.
“Sorry about all this, Cougs,” Jensen said, meaning a little bit of everything—scaring him, getting hurt, the hospital, his ribs, the nonstop talking and minor stalking, and also this hug-thing, whatever it was—but Cougar shook him a little without letting go and made a sound like an angry cat that meant shut up, idiot, so he did.
Cougar was definitely shaking, now, and the moment where Jensen could still pass off this whatever-it-was as just a friendly thing went screaming past, unacknowledged, because Cougar seemed to need this just as much as Jensen did. If Cougar wasn’t going to let go, then neither was Jensen. Chances were that once this was over Cougar would never let him do it again, so Jensen closed his eyes and went with it, as long as it lasted.
It wasn’t a surprise that Cougar was the one to end it, tugging lightly at Jensen’s hair until he got with the program and reluctantly pulled away. It was a little surprising that Cougar didn’t let go, or let him go very far—just slid his hand down so it was cupping Jensen’s neck instead of his head and looked at him.
Jensen looked back. Cougar’s eyes were wide in a bone-pale, bloodless face, and his hands were unsteady against Jensen’s skin, and he was staring like Jensen was the last cookie in the box, like Jensen had the explanations for the secrets of the universe and the Mona Lisa’s smile. He was staring like Jensen was a light in a dark room and Cougar was afraid it might go out, and Jensen had a moment of revelation that felt a little like awe and a lot like simple relief. If this was the reason that Cougar hadn’t been meeting his eyes—because he hadn’t wanted Jensen to see—
“Oh,” he breathed, comprehension dawning, and then again, “oh, okay,” because clearly there had been a misunderstanding here on a fundamental level, but it was one that he could clear up pretty easily. “Stop me if I’m reading this wrong,” he said, already starting to lean in, and Cougar looked briefly, hilariously surprised and then stupid-smug-pleased, like he really hadn’t known for sure until he had seen the slap-happy smile spreading across Jensen’s face and realized that he was the one who had slapped it there.
Jensen leaned in, and Cougar met him halfway.
* * *
“But really, Cougs, man, did you slap me?”
* * *
“Why are you—stop laughing, you asshole, it was a serious question! Fine, laugh at the injured man, see if I ever let you touch my dick—”
“…okay, yeah, we can do whatever you want. But you’re still an asshole.”
“You love it.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I do.”